Giving All Kids a Healthy Start
Taos Pueblo Head Start/My First School is a newly renovated building, serving children ages 1 to 5. It is a welcoming community—not only for students, but their families as well. “Traditional Tiwa values of welcoming family and community members and showing respect and appreciation for them is really at the heart of the Head Start success,” explained Bernadette Mirabal, Family Service and Health Coordinator at the school.
A highlight of the structure is the indoor organic garden room, where students, parents and staff grow fresh produce. “Our garden teaches our children about where food comes from, the necessity to be good stewards of living plants and animals, and the effort needed to produce healthy food for our bodies,” explains Nutrition Director Yvonne Valdez. In addition to the garden room, the Head Start now purchases all of their food from a local organic grocery store or the Pueblo’s own Red Willow Farmers Market.
According to a 2010 New Mexico Department of Health report, nearly 30 percent of entering kindergarteners in the state were overweight or obese. Among these 5 year olds, about 37 percent are American Indian. The report was a key impetus in making healthy changes in the Head Start program. Since then, Taos Pueblo Head Start has been recognized in the state of New Mexico by the Healthy Kids Healthy Childcare Initiative as a model because of its innovative teaching strategies that incorporate healthy eating and active living lessons into the daily classroom routine.
A strong tribal identity is instilled in the Pueblo’s youngest children, as English and Tiwa—the community’s native oral language—are taught side by side as part of the Head Start program.
The building used for Head Start also has a parent lounge, with a kitchen and two computer stations, furthering their mission to support families at all stages of life. These resources make a statement to parents that they have a place in the school and that their work and educational goals are supported by the school leadership. Creating a community- and health-oriented school didn’t happen by chance. It is the result of the type of governance and community interaction instituted after the tribe moved to self-governance. Community meetings were established in 2007 to create dialogue between the tribal staff and community members. As a result of these meetings, the Tiwa language program was established and a Parent Policy Council was named to lead the implementation of the healthy foods strategies and creation of the parents lounge.