A Look Back in History: NCFL partners with the Bureau of Indian Education in 1990

Note: Incorporated as a 501c3 organization in 1989, the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) celebrates its 30th anniversary of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families in 2019. This is the first in a series of blog posts detailing important moments in NCFL history that will run throughout the year.

It was back in the fall of 1990 when the discussion first began on a partnership that would end up spanning decades. Intergenerational learning was gaining popularity across the country for the first time, with the National Center for Family Literacy (now the National Center for Families Learning) helping to lead the movement. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (now the Bureau of Indian Education), meanwhile, was searching for a way to incorporate this type of learning into its hundreds of reservations in the western part of the country. Soon enough, the two organizations connected and took the first step on the road to empowering thousands of Native American families in the years to come.

At the time, implementation of the National Center for Families Learning’s (NCFL) Parent and Child Education (PACE) model was growing. After becoming enacted as Kentucky state law in 1986, it quickly spread into a national model over the next three years. Before the turn of the decade, PACE had earned the Innovations in American Government Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

It was at this juncture that Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) representatives began taking a deeper look.

“The more I learned about family literacy programs, the more they intrigued me,” said BIE education specialist Dixie Owen, who was the first to explore a potential partnership with NCFL. “I realized that the idea was too promising, too forceful to pass up.”

That fall, Owen and BIE branch chief for elementary and secondary education Bill Mehojih contacted NCFL and invited representatives to an exploration planning conference. Just two months later, in January 1991, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Early Childhood/Parental Program began.

The project combined ideas and elements from Missouri’s Parents as Teachers (PAT) program, the High/Scope Educational Research Institution, and the PACE and Kenan Trust family literacy models, which began in Kentucky. For staff at NCFL, the undertaking was as immense as it was innovative.

“You might say I was frightened, or at the very least, very nervous,” recalled NCFL’s then adult education services director Meta Potts. “We knew how important it was to capture the customs and traditions of Native American people within the training package, but it seemed a formidable task.”

Bonnie Freeman, NCFL’s then director of early childhood education, acknowledged the many difficulties that the people had endured both in life and in educating their children. Describing their plight, she referenced a Langston Hughes quote: ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.’

Their feelings as outsiders were quickly dispersed, however, when one participant at an initial session said, “You feel that you are entering a darkness, but let us help you. We will lead you into the light.”

In just the first few months of 1991, programs were implemented on three reservations and in two schools in New Mexico, Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington; principals, teachers, coordinators, and aides were trained in the family literacy model; and parent-educators were trained in the Parents as Teachers model for home visits.

At the opening ceremony  in St. Louis, a young Navajo girl expressed her feelings in her native language.

“We are on new ground,” she said. “We will teach and we will learn. We will weave the threads of the program into our tapestry. It will become part of us, and we will become part of it. We will leave open spaces for new knowledge to combine with old wisdom.”

The Family and Child Education (FACE) program has now served more than 48,000 Native American adults and children over the past 28 years. Today, NCFL implements its four-component family learning model at 49 different BIE sites across the country. Working together for nearly three decades, NCFL and the BIE have indeed provided many new threads, empowering thousands of Native American families to weave the most colorful of tapestries and ultimately achieve a brighter future.

“This program offers something different,” said a Navajo leader at the opening ceremony. “You have offered us guidance, but you recognize that we are worthy and strong and intelligent. We will do the job.”

Nearly 30 years later, the job continues to be done.