December 2013

The SPARK Program

 Joining Hands at the Pueblo of Jémez


Rhiannon Toya


SPARK-Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids was an early-childhood program at the Pueblo of Jémez designed to increase family engagement and ease the transition from Head Start into kindergarten, with a focus on language and early-childhood development. The SPARK program, an initiative of New Mexico Community Foundation, began in 2009, and was part of a nationwide early-childhood program funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Special emphasis was made by the Pueblo of Jémez SPARK staff to sustain their Towa language with support from their Jémez Language Team and other community partners.

The Pueblo of Jémez is one of the 19 pueblos of New Mexico and is situated approximately 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque. The population consists of 3,600 people with 2,500 residing on the reservation. Jémez people are rich in culture and tradition with a high rate of homeland Towa language speakers. The Pueblo houses four schools: Walatowa Headstart, Jémez BIA Elementary, San Diego Riverside Charter School and Walatowa High Charter School. There is also Jémez Valley Public School, situated eight miles off the reservation.

The goal of the program was to increase parents’ understanding of early-childhood development, including health, language and social development. The goal also included increasing professional development trainings for teachers in all the schools. Director of Education for the Pueblo of Jémez, Kevin Shendo, had an idea in mind when approached to see if Jémez would like to house the SPARK program. His idea was to conduct the program in Towa, the homeland language, so the program could be more culturally oriented. That meant bringing in the pueblo’s resources to support the program. It also meant that in order to conduct the program smoothly and have the Towa language at the forefront, the people in charge would have to be fluent Towa speakers.

Two young Towa speakers were hired to oversee the program and work closely with the director of education, the community and the local schools. They did networking and outreach with the schools and tribal programs so the program could be known and supported. Once the coordinators were able to get the support of the schools, they started implementing key components of the program and sustainable key elements were established. The intention was to bring all schools together so the teachers had the same goal in mind. A Joining Hands team was established, consisting of a kindergarten teacher from each school, including eight Jémez Language Team members. The formation of this team was vital in order to have input from each school to share ideas about what monthly activities, events and engagement the children would most benefit from.

In order to have a high level of parental involvement, the coordinators knew activities would need to be conducted on a monthly basis. They were able to establish partnerships with the principals, all of whom offered their facilities to host events and trainings. These events included:

  • Transition Fair—which gave parents an opportunity to meet with the kindergarten teachers to see which school would better suit their child
  • Kinder Camp—a weeklong camp before school commenced to allow incoming kindergarteners to get a feel of what their kindergarten environment would be like
  • Professional Development Training for Teachers around the topics of Social/Emotional Development, Brain-based Learning for parents and teachers, and Facilitation Training
  • Walatowa Language Symposium—organized to educate the public and specific tribal communities about the importance of home languages and the significance of teaching them to ensure their survival. Presenters came from different tribal communities, institutions of higher education and the island of Hawai’i to share their work and strategies.
  • Hawai’i Language Immersion Training and Site Visit—A delegation of 16 people representing the SPARK Program, school teachers, tribal elders, Jémez Language Team, Jémez Tribal Council, Jémez Education Department and 1st Lieut. Gov. Juan Toya spent a week in Hawai’i learning about the language revitalization and retention programs in place there in schools.
  • Pee Wee Basketball Tournaments—110 preschool and kindergarten kids participated
  • Field Days—gatherings for the children during school, which included traditional games, dances, storytelling and food

The SPARK program clearly impacted the collaborative efforts of all teachers regarding the effects of early-childhood development and partnerships in this arena.

What has been most impactful for the Pueblo of Jémez has been the efforts made by SPARK staff, community partners and tribal leaders to promote a Tribal Council Resolution that would transition the tribal Head Start programs to full language-immersion programs this fall. Because of the passage of a resolution in December of 2012 by Tribal Council, the Towa language will now be the medium of instruction, and the schools have official authority to conduct all business in the Jémez language.

This policy outcome supports the goals and objectives of SPARK in implementing programs with schools in the home language of the children, and reinforces the importance of grounding the children in their home language. For Jémez, the Tribal Council Resolution will also impact the transitions, curriculum, vertical alignment and practices of all the schools. This will lead to a more focused professional development and training effort on the effective implementation of the Common Core State Standards in a way that actually honors local language and culture. This policy implementation sets a strong precedent, as it will be one of the first federally funded Head Start programs to move its instruction from English to the home language of the community. This will set the stage for other tribal, minority and migrant communities to do the same and to develop the home languages of their children through the education provided at their local Head Start programs.

Because of the great partnerships established with the schools, SPARK lives on, and will continue to be a cornerstone of Jémez Education Department’s success. To this end, the Department will be awarded a small grant from NMCF in 2014 to go towards implementation of the immersion programming, providing professional development sessions for teachers to integrate the Towa language and culture curriculum in the school, and to continue Kinder Camp.

Former SPARK Coordinator Perspective

My name is Rhiannon Toya, a member of Jémez Pueblo and SPARK coordinator for the first year-and-a half of the program. SPARK has been an instrumental component of getting me to where I am today. It has guided me in a direction that I had never dreamed of; I call it a blessing in disguise. As I started working for the program, I was very nervous to build everything from the ground up—being in charge of a massive budget, networking with the principals, getting out in the community to promote the importance of early-childhood learning. It was a lot of work, and I am very thankful that I had very supportive people to work with that guided me along the way. As the program took off, the former program officer of New Mexico Community Foundation, Gilbert Sanchez, helped me structure the program in a way that would be positive, fun, welcoming and full of learning. He helped the assistant coordinator, Lynette Jordan, and me in so many instrumental ways. I remember him telling me, “You are a parent, what types of events would you have liked to see happen in your community when your children were in preschool? What would you want your children to learn? As a parent, what would you like to learn?”

Those questions were all I needed to hear to kick-start and develop the SPARK program. Of course I wanted the very best for my two beautiful children, Kai Toya,eight years old, and Ailana Toya, 11. As a parent I tried my best to expose them to different activities to promote their learning, starting at a young age. I thought it would be very beneficial for our community children to have the same opportunities as my own children. That is how we came up with most of our list of events. I had a blast working for SPARK; I learned so much, and I made lasting friendships and partnerships with different organizations in and outside of my community.

Our Jémez tradition and culture is very important to me. That is what makes us unique among people around the world. I am proud of where I come from, and that is what I teach my kids at home and in the classroom. Our Towa Language is so important; it is what makes us who we are as Jémez people. Therefore, I am always stressing to students that they need to continue speaking our native language. I tell them, “If we lose our language, we can’t get it back.”

SPARK also inspired me to become a teacher. Never in my wildest dreams did I think of becoming a teacher! I loved working with the students so much that I was hired as a teacher technician at Jémez Day School, and I am now in school to become a teacher. I am currently enrolled in the Elementary Education Program at New Mexico Highlands University pursuing my bachelor’s degree. I will be graduating in the spring of 2015. My plan is to work at Jémez Day School and continue my education.




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