[Editor's Note: This story was modified on Aug. 30 for clarification purposes.]

 It’s that time of year again. Young Osages marched to the front doors of the Osage Nation Head Start today, some arriving for their first time, others attending their second year.

“We have [non-Osage] parents that want [their children] to come here because of the Osage culture,” said ON Head Start Director Denise Keene. “Some [non-Osage] parents are proud their children can say Osage words and know about the culture.”

The federally funded program, funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through a yearly grant, serves 210 children, of which 58 percent are Osage. The Nation has seven head start facilities on the Osage reservation, four daycares and more than 40 jobs, Keene said. The sites are in Pawhuska, Skiatook, Hominy, Fairfax, Barnsdall, McCord and Shidler.

The largest enrollment is in Skiatook with the smallest enrollments in Barnsdall and Shidler. The McCord facility will receive a new building this year that will adjoin with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program there.

Since the head starts are considered a pre-school, the staff has chosen Creative Curriculum, a nationally known curriculum for effective and comprehensive early childhood classrooms that reflect a fundamental understanding of child development and best early childhood practices, Keene said. The curriculum involves interactive games, learning computer fundamentals, with the curricula helping the child feel as if they are playing. The head start staff feels this type of curriculum meets the Osage students’ needs most efficiently, Keene said.

The students attend classes five days a week, with the classes being four-and-a-half hours long. The exception is in Barnsdall where the children only attend classes four days a week to match the Barnsdall public school system.

The students take educational field trips each year to places like the Jenks Aquarium, the Tulsa Zoo, Woolaroc and other fun places.

There is currently a waiting list to be admitted to the head start, with federal guidelines prohibiting the facility from admitting everyone, regardless of race or income. The facility has to give priority to Osage 4-year-olds who come from low-income families. The second priority is the 4-year-olds who are non-Osage but of another tribal affiliation and from low-income families. The third priority is 4-year-olds of non-Osage, non-tribal affiliation that are low income. Part of the federal grant is having a waiting list, Keene said. The biggest waiting lists are the Pawhuska and Skiatook facilities.

However, said Keene, they always manage to get every child in and currently there are no students left on the waiting list, which fluctuates all the time. The head starts always have children whose parents are moving or taking their children out of head start for various reasons in which they admit a new child. The best policy is just to call and check availability, she said.

For those students in the future who are denied by the head start due to income or the facility is too full, Keene and staff has developed a “pre-school” room in the Osage Nation Daycare facilities. These classrooms function almost exactly as the head start curriculums, she said.

Osage Language

Teachers at the nation’s head start facilities are encouraged to take Osage Language classes. The Osage language department starts their Fall semester Sept. 13. There are two language assessments made during the head start school year, said Tammy Cunningham, manager of the Pawhuska head start. By the end of the school year the students should have learned at least five Osage words. They are taught the Osage words for body parts, numbers and family members, she said.

Mandy McKinley, Osage and a teacher at the Pawhuska site, has a cultural library that the students can choose from. The library also has DVD’s that teach the children about the Osage heritage and other cultures as well, Cunningham said. The letters of the alphabet on the classroom walls correspond to something in the Osage culture. For example, for the letter “A” is the word arbor.

“We have our [Osage language] DVD’s, and our teachers are trying to speak Osage through lunch,” she said. “They have been speaking commands [with the children].”

In head start parent meetings the teachers teach the parents a few Osage words to encourage its use in the home as well, Cunningham said.

Dream program

Keene first started working for the head start as a teacher in 1979 and fell in love with the program and the students. She has her degree in Family Relations and Child Development from Oklahoma State University.

“The reason why we’re still here after all these years is because we love it,” Keene said. “Each family has a right to choose the education for their child . . . a facility where the parent feels that their child is getting quality education.”

Cunningham agrees. Married to an Osage, Milton Cunningham, she is of Sac’n Fox descent, she loves working at the head start, working with the children and promoting the Osage culture to the students.

“Head start gets in you and either you love it or you don’t love it,” she said. “[We] just get excited when it’s August and school’s starting up, it’s just a good feeling.”

For more information about ON Head Start facilities, call (918) 287-5461 or visit their Web site