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Cherokee Nation breaks ground on state-of-the-art Head Start facility in Tahlequah

Tuesday, October 17, 2023 - Leaders of the Cherokee Nation met Tuesday to break ground on a new 75,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Head Start facility in Tahlequah.

Construction of the new Head Start facility is a part of the Verna D. Thompson Early Childhood Education Act, which was signed into law by Chief Hoskin and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner with support from the Council of the Cherokee Nation in 2021. The Act dedicates a minimum of $40 million to help replace or rehabilitate Cherokee Nation Head Start centers across the tribe’s reservation.

“Today we are breaking ground on a building that is much needed and is going to serve the Cherokee Nation well. The men and women who work in our Head Start facilities, and their leader, Verna Thompson, have been providing first-class education and educational leadership in our Head Start program for years,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “It is our responsibility to construct Head Start buildings worthy of the people working in them, and worthy of the little kids who attend these facilities for their education. Investing in the education of our children has always been the Cherokee way, so Deputy Chief Warner and I will soon be going back to the Council of the Cherokee Nation and asking that they help us provide even more funding toward this cause of providing state-of-the-art Head Start facilities around the tribe’s reservation.”

The two-story Tahlequah site will be approximately 75,000 square feet and designed to replace the existing Head Start center on adjacent property, some of which was recently destroyed by a fire. The new building will have 17 classrooms and four motor-skills rooms, two of which will serve as storm shelters. Included in the design are offices for staff, nurse’s rooms, conference rooms and a training room.

The construction project is tentatively set for completion in 2025.

“It’s important to invest in early education for our Cherokee children because that’s how we invest in the future of our great Nation. The Verna D. Thompson Early Childhood Education Act provides young Cherokees with state-of-the-art facilities so that they can have a state-of-the-art education,” Deputy Chief Bryan Warner said. “We know that our Creator has given each and every one of us a purpose, and that includes our children. So, let’s be mindful and let’s be prayerful for every single person that has played a hand in raising up these children by providing them with the educational resources and opportunities that they need and deserve. It’s the spirit of gadugi, the Cherokee belief in the power of working together, that continues to lay the foundation for future generations of Cherokees to thrive.”

Cherokee Nation currently serves over 900 children through its Head Start programs, which were first started in 1978. Cherokee Nation’s Head Start students range from as young as six weeks to preschool age. They are taught cognitive, language, motor and social skills as part of the tribe’s Head Start programs.

“As a child of a single mother with four kids in the home, I can attest to the fact that it is a blessing and gift to go to a place for early childhood education,” District 2 Councilor Candessa Tehee said. “I believe that the attitude of leadership in our Verna D. Thompson Early Childhood Education unit comes from our history as Cherokee people. We have always valued education. We had a public education system before the State of Oklahoma even existed, and I’m proud to be alongside councilors who continue this tradition. Something like the Verna Thompson Act wouldn’t be possible without the partnership between the executive branch and the Council.”

Prior to Tuesday’s groundbreaking in Tahlequah, work also began on new Head Start facilities in Nowata, Pryor, and as part of the Cherokee Nation Woody Hair Community Center project in Kenwood. Construction for Head Start facilities is also planned for communities in Jay, Cherry Tree and Salina.

Across the country, federal Head Start programs provide comprehensive services to more than 1 million children each year.

The Cherokee Nation Verna D. Thompson Early Childhood Education Act is named in honor of Head Start Director Verna Thompson, who has worked for the Cherokee Nation and in early childhood education for four decades.

KXMX Staff Writer

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