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Navajo Head Start program has new permanent director

By Felicial Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 12-07

The Navajo Nation Head Start program will be under new leadership this month as federal officials make their final visit to determine whether deficiencies that helped to temporarily shut down the program last year have been corrected.

Spencer Willie, the government liaison for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, takes over as permanent director of the Head Start program Dec. 10.

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said he has no qualms about Willie’s ability to lead one of the nation’s largest American Indian Head Start programs.

“Spencer Willie’s heart is in the right place, and one cannot go wrong with a man like that,” Shirley said in a statement.

Willie, 34, was chosen from among four people who were interviewed for the job, said Lamont Yazzie, who until Friday was the program’s interim director.

A federal review of the Head Start program was scheduled for Dec. 5. Officials were making sure the program has licensed mental health care professionals and program planning and mentoring – deficiencies Yazzie said he worked to correct as interim director.

Willie said his experience as a government liaison and a program manager with the Boys and Girls’ Clubs on the Navajo Nation will help him advance the cause of the Head Start program.

“That’s what I’m here for, to make sure it’s re-established in a strong foundation, that we’re able to look at the requirements of what we need to do to pass the federal regulations and other things that are standing in the way of other centers being reopened,” he said.

But some people doubt that Willie can successfully lead the Head Start program.

State Rep. Ray Begaye, a Democrat from Shiprock, said Willie was “very weak in his administrative capability” to move the Boys and Girls’ Club forward.

Willie was chosen in 2000 to expand the Boys and Girls’ Club on the reservation. His duties included writing grants for federal funds and administering them to the nonprofit Boys and Girls Club of Navajoland Inc., which Ray Begaye ran.

The reservation’s 14 clubs were closed amid allegations that the nonprofit organization mismanaged federal dollars. The charter was revoked and tribal leadership took over in 2005 when the tribe received its own charter from the Boys and Girls Club of America.

“To have Mr. Willie take the leadership role (of Head Start) would be very questionable,” Ray Begaye said.

Willie said he recommended to Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. that the clubs be shut down to bring them under the Navajo Nation.

“I had to do my job, difficult decisions had to be made, and someone had to carry out those decisions,” Willie said. “That’s what I’m bringing to Head Start, the commitment to do what is necessary to ensure we’re following federal guidelines and then to initate services and sustain those services with exceptional programming.”

In revoking funding last year to the Navajo Head Start program, the federal Administration for Children and Families found wide-ranging threats to children’s safety, such as broken, jagged play equipment; dogs and horses being allowed to roam through playgrounds; and broken heaters in classrooms. A report also cited a lack of financial controls, and found dozens of employees of the program with criminal records.

Navajo officials worked to correct the deficiencies, resulting in the almost immediate lifting of the suspension of the Early Head Start program. Months later, federal officials lifted the suspension for the rest of the program and centers began to reopen last October.

As of late November, 122 Head Start classrooms, 37 home-based sites and six Early Head Start programs were operating. Before the shutdown, the tribe operated 210 Head Start centers.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the tribe’s Shiprock Chapter, said he’s hopeful Willie has the credentials and ability to run the program.

“He better work out because they need help,” he said.