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Effort to boost tribal early learning collapses 3 years after mandate by Oregon Legislature

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Effort to boost tribal early learning collapses 3 years after mandate by Oregon Legislature

Feb 20, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Kaylee Tornay, InvestigateWest
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Effort to boost tribal early learning collapses 3 years after mandate by Oregon Legislature
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Valeria Atanacio, head of tribal affairs in Oregon's Early Learning Division in 2021, rejoiced when the Legislature passed a law to create a tribal early learning program in the division. But in October 2024, after receiving $2 million in state and federal funding, a committee tasked with creating the program killed the effort. (Amanda Loman/Investigate West)

Three years ago, Valeria Atanacio urged state lawmakers to pass a bill aiming to increase Indigenous families’ access to early learning and child care programs. 

When the Oregon Legislature embraced the proposal — called the Tribal Early Learning Hub — she considered it a victory.

“That was really impactful because it was delivering on a promise,” said Atanacio, who was the tribal affairs manager for Oregon’s Early Learning Division in 2021. The promise, she said, was to empower tribes to shape how those state resources and services would be delivered.

The Legislature tasked a tribal advisory committee, composed of representatives from all nine of the state’s federally recognized tribes, with designing the hub. Oregon already has 10 such hubs, which are regional subagencies of the early learning department that shape early learning strategies in their local communities. The tribal hub would focus solely on tribal communities instead. Lawmakers allocated $601,000 to fund the committee’s work, with another $626,000 in 2023. Atanacio was promoted to tribal affairs director in 2022, ran the meetings and served as a key liaison between state officials and the tribal committee members.

But in October — after 14 months of meetings and nearly $2 million in state and federal funds allocated — the committee scrapped plans for the early learning hub entirely, saying it had found no way to structure it in a way that would honor each tribe’s sovereignty. The committee put its funding toward grants distributed among the tribes, but those decisions were made in meetings that were not open to the public, possibly in violation of Oregon’s open-meetings laws, InvestigateWest found. And Atanacio, who said she received little support in her role leading the early learning division’s work with tribes, was demoted suddenly in July 2023 and then resigned. For six months after, all three of the early learning department’s tribal affairs positions remained vacant.

“It was getting to that point where it felt my values no longer aligned with this system,” Atanacio said. “I felt like I was being put in the position to pacify the Native community.”

However, the Tribal Early Learning Hub remains required under the law passed in 2021, and Alyssa Chatterjee, director of the Department of Early Learning and Care, said the statute must be amended to allow the committee to permanently stop working on it. But the department is bringing no proposed fix forward during the 2024 Legislative session, saying tribes need more time to work out an alternate plan.

“We have to remember we’re talking about nine individual nations, and so it takes time to coalesce around a shared idea,” Chatterjee said. “As the work evolved over time and over the last six months, there was a lot more clarity about which direction to go.”

The lawmakers who created the early learning hub haven’t publicly expressed much interest in the committee’s progress or how the money was spent. When InvestigateWest reached out to the 10 members of the legislative committee overseeing the early learning department, only one, Rep. Anna Scharf, responded, saying that she was “basically unaware” that the tribal committee even existed. 

Meanwhile, tribal representatives on the committee said their rejection of the hub doesn’t mean they’re not fulfilling their mission — they’re just approaching the same goals a different way. 

“I think that’s OK if there has to be a change in direction,” said Sandy Henry, education director for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and co-chair of the tribal advisory committee. “We just keep our eye on the prize and keep walking forward.”

Others, however, have some lingering doubt that tribes will be able to get what they need from the early learning department without the hub that tribal leaders fought for for years.

“We’ve got to wait and find out if that’s true or not, and if not, hold people’s feet to the fire,” said Julie Siestreem, who represents the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw on the committee. “I’m in a constant state of prayer, a constant state of alertness. The primary concern is that our children are served, and that’s the bottom line.”

Addressing entrenched struggles

Education leaders from several Oregon tribes have argued for years that the state’s rules sometimes prevented Indigenous providers from caring for children according to their own cultural knowledge. For example, Oregon required an exemption with a physician’s signoff for a licensed child care provider to use a cradleboard as an infant sleep setting, as is common in some tribal cultures. 

And though the state increased its investments in child care and early learning, tribes haven’t had clear pathways to access those funds while honoring their government sovereignty, Atanacio said. 

The Tribal Early Learning Hub was supposed to be the entity to bring all the tribes and the state together to solve those obstacles.

The brain develops most rapidly during the first few years of life, research has shown. The ethos of early learning is to set children up to thrive as they enter the K-12 system. 

Although Oregon has little data on Indigenous families’ access to early learning and child care, as children grow up, data lays bare the educational inequities they face. 

About 21% of all American Indian and Alaska Native third graders were proficient in English language arts in 2023, compared with 39% of third graders statewide, according to state assessment data. In 2023, 68% of American Indian and Alaska Native seniors graduated from high school, compared with 81% of all Oregon students. 

“We continue to see trends with Native American youth that they’re just not as successful in those Eurocentric environments as they could be,” said Henry. “That starts in early childhood education. That starts with our babies.”

Boosting support for tribes’ early learning programs is about more than academic achievement, however, Henry said.

“The other thing that’s important is that culture and language are incorporated into the early learning environment for our kids,” she said. “That’s an important piece for their identity, and it’s important that we recognize that and honor that.”

Tribes nationwide don’t receive much federal money to support their early learning and child care programs — less than $600 per child on average each year through the federal child care subsidy, according to an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Some also receive Head Start funding and run home visiting programs for at-risk families. In Oregon, only a handful of the nine federally recognized tribes participate in state-subsidized programs, such as Preschool Promise. 

As part of a broader goal to make early learning more accessible statewide, lawmakers created regional early learning hubs in 2013. They bring together local educators, physical and mental health providers, and other professionals to form strategies to serve families with children under 5 in their own community. The hubs also manage enrollment in early learning and child care programs. 

However, not all tribes have a good relationship with their respective regional early learning hubs, Henry said. That’s what prompted some to push for a hub that would serve tribes exclusively.

“My particular tribe has enjoyed a really solid relationship with our early learning hub,” she said. “My understanding is that has not been the case throughout the state.”

During the tribal advisory committee’s first two years, it tackled some of the barriers that interfered with their cultural practices, such as the cradleboard issue. At the advisory committee’s recommendation, the Early Learning Council, which sets early learning system rules, removed the exemption requirement. State-licensed child care providers can now use cradleboards if a parent prefers without having to seek an exemption.

Yet, despite being a public body subject to public meetings law, the tribal advisory committee didn’t often operate as one, including when it decided in 2022 how to allocate the funding it received. As with most of the tribal advisory committee meetings, the department did not make the agenda, minutes and recording public until more than a year later.

The Early Learning Division combined the state funding with another $650,000 in federal funds, bringing the total that the committee allocated to $1.2 million. 

The committee agreed to split the money evenly between the tribes in $190,000 grants, with broad allowable uses. Tribes spent the money in various ways, including training for early childhood educators, a youth needs assessment, and cultural items and Indigenous literature for preschool classes, according to the early learning department. 

It’s not clear how much of the funds, if any, has gone back into the committee’s work to structure the hub.

Bumps on the road

Personnel conflicts and prolonged vacancies also factored into the committee’s struggle to make the early learning hub work.

Atanacio was not renewed in her position as tribal affairs director in July, a decision she said was conveyed to her without warning or explanation. Because she had been in a probationary period as the director, she was returned to her previous position of liaison to the committee members.

A member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde with an educational and professional background in early childhood education, Atanacio had first joined the Early Learning Division in 2020, when it was still part of the Oregon Department of Education. She was its first tribal affairs manager. After she was made director in 2022, she helped oversee the distribution of the early learning grants to tribes, serving as a point of communication and coordination for the committee’s work.

It’s not clear what led to Atancio’s removal as director in July. Chatterjee declined to discuss the action, citing personnel confidentiality. While Chatterjee did say that the committee’s failure to comply with public meetings law happened on Atanacio’s watch, Atanacio said she was never notified about it. Her personnel record, which InvestigateWest reviewed, contained no indication that she was disciplined or put on an improvement plan before her supervisors determined she was “unwilling or unable” to perform the necessary functions of the tribal affairs director role. 

Atanacio said she received little feedback from Chatterjee while in the role. Without clear answers, she has speculated that her demotion was related to her defense of tribes’ rights to self-govern, which put her at odds with the state’s priorities at times.

“As one of the only Native American people employed by the agency, there wasn’t any support. There wasn’t a safe space for me as a person,” she said. What disappointed her was “just the disposability piece of it.”

Atanacio left the department in August, resigning from the liaison position. She continues to work on early learning issues through other channels.

“I feel very much validated in my decision to leave when I did,” she said. “I still am in this work, and I want to keep moving progress toward more tribally inclusive services and programming.”

After her departure, all three positions within the early learning department’s newly created Tribal Affairs Office remained vacant for the next five months. In January, Paulina Whitehat, a Navajo educator and researcher with expertise in special education, started as the new tribal affairs director. She declined to comment on this story.

Success plan

The tribal advisory committee is now crafting an Indigenous student success plan, similar to one created by the Oregon Department of Education in 2020. The Education Department’s plan lays out goals such as increasing accurate data on Indigenous youth, improving graduation rates and reducing overrepresentation in school discipline.

The committee has not specified how long it will take to create its own student success plan or to approach the Legislature about changing its role in statute.

“I think a really common theme is (tribes) don’t want to be pressured into a timeline,” Chatterjee said. 

The months since the committee set aside its work on the Tribal Early Learning Hub is “not enough time to have a legislative concept that each tribe could have vetted through their government structure,” she said.

In the Legislature, the House Early Childhood and Human Services committee is new to dealing with the early learning department, said Scharf, the Republican lawmaker from Amity who serves as one of the committee’s vice chairs. 

In the 2023 session, legislators were concerned with bigger changes as the Early Learning Division became the Department of Early Learning and Care. Primarily, they focused on the state’s employment-related child care subsidy, which moved from the Oregon Department of Human Services to the new early learning department last July.

I can’t think of any reports or information we have received, and was basically unaware of there even being a Tribal Advisory Committee,” Scharf said.

Scharf said she believes that the early learning department should be assigned its own House committee separate from human services so that both can get enough attention from legislators.

Tribal committee members, meanwhile, said they are keeping their focus where it belongs as they make new plans. 

“I feel like a lot of really good work has been done,” said Henry. “Would we have liked to be further down the road than we are now? Yeah, we would. But it’s also important that we stay true to our goal and true to the tribal citizens that we serve.”

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reach reporter Kaylee Tornay at [email protected]. This story was produced with support from the Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Chauncey Bailey Journalist of Color Investigative Reporting Fellowship.