A new preschool is opening in Sitka this fall, with the aim of closing the gap in achievement for low-income students.

The preschool will be housed in Baranof Elementary, and will help transition three-year-olds from the existing Head Start program into kindergarten.

Members of the team collaborating on the project outlined their plans for the Sitka School Board this week (9-10-13).

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The name is going to be a challenge, for sure. But if assistant superintendent Mary Wegner can get there, so can the rest of us.

Mary Wegner attempts — with mixed results — to teach the school board the pronunciation of Wooch.een Yei Jigaxhtoonei.

And now it’s my turn. Wooch.een Yei Jigaxhtoonei. It means “We are all working together.” It’s the result of a multi-year collaboration between Head Start, the Sitka Native Education Program, the Sitka School District, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

Wegner told the board that the new preschool was not intended to compete with other programs in the community.

“This is not to serve students who are currently enrolled in a preschool. We are working with Head Start, using their enrollment process. Although you are not limited to being eligible to enroll in Head Start to be eligible for the Woo.cheen Yei Jigaxht? Jigaxteen? (Laughs) Jigaxhtoonei program.”

Wooch.een Yei will operate in Baranof Elementary, and serve 4-5 year-olds. 3-4 year olds will continue to go to Head Start in the Rasmuson Center on the Sheldon Jackson Campus. Next year, after work on Pacific High is complete, Head Start will relocate to the Southeast Alaska Career Center building next door to Baranof.

Find enrollment information for Wooch.een Yei Jigaxhtoonei.

Tristan Guevin, a planner for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, says Wooch.een Yei will roughly double the capacity of the Head Start program to 30 students, and possibly more.

“So Head Start is still a program run by Tlingit & Haida Central Council. STA and the Sitka School District are really bringing their resources to bear. And so rather than having Head Start operate in isolation, they’re going to have support from the Tribe and support from the district.”

Guevin and Nancy Douglas, who is now cultural director for the Sitka School District, have done pilot work integrating culture into early education. That partnership between the Sitka Native Education Program and Head Start formed the basis of Wooch.ein Yei. People liked it.

“And I think families are really excited. One of the big pieces that people are excited about is the cultural enrichment, and more opportunity for Tlingit language.”
But Guevin also assured the board that cultural education was meant to be inclusive.

“Through Tlingit language we can really focus on building a sense of identity and a sense of pride in students, and particularly in Native students. Additionally, we’ll have a diversely populated preschool. It’s an opportunity for those Native students to be culture-bearers, and for non-Native students to learn about the place they live in, and the culture that’s been here since time immemorial, for thousands upon thousands of years.”

About five years ago the Sitka Tribe of Alaska initiated a language revitalization grant from the Administration for Native Americans. Guevin says tribal elders wanted to strengthen early childhood education, and integrate culture and language.Wooch.een Yei really got its start then, and with the partnerships that formed around the language revitalization effort.

The program is being funded through a pooling of existing resources. The Sitka district is contributing space and Special Ed support. Head Start is providing staff and transportation. The Tribe’s education department helped create the model, and will support families with social services.

The pooling resources is very intentional, Guevin told the board, and should ensure Wooch.een Yei’s stability. He said all involved believed the new preschool was “Not something that disappears in a year or two.”

Preschool opens September 23.