When Michelle Haskins joined the education department at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College three years ago, the goal wasn’t to help students earn bachelor’s degrees. More often, it was to certify teachers already working at the local Head Start program.
Head Start has grown from to serve nearly 44,000 children of American Indian and Alaska Native heritage today.
The federal program — which offers early childhood education, health, nutrition, and other services to low-income children and families — is a staple in tribal communities and has become a leading employer for those who wish to stay in their communities.
Tribal colleges often serve as a key resource for those Head Start teachers, who are often hired and then asked to get the certifications or degrees needed to meet qualification requirements.
However, taking classes while also teaching full time adds challenges to a community that already faces roadblocks to completing higher education.
For instance, when Haskins started, all the certification classes had to be offered on Saturdays, as most of the students were too busy with their jobs on the weekdays.
Since then, Haskins has worked with the remote Head Start program in northwest Wisconsin to use Fridays for professional development, including the certification courses at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College.
Still, the college saw overall enrollment drop even before the pandemic.
To help recruit more students, it led a “Knock and Talk” campaign three years ago, Haskins says, telling families about all the courses and majors they were offering and asking for feedback about programs they could add.
“We went right into the communities we serve, and invited them back into our college,” Haskins says, and enrollment has stabilized since.
Coordinating Head Start certifications is a challenge for a number of colleges that rely heavily on education programs for enrollment.
Hours and locations can vary greatly between teachers and nursery staff, who also need to take certification courses.
The College of Menominee Nation had an enrollment in the 600s before the pandemic and is now down to roughly 300 students.
Education programs are essential to the college, since about a third of its students are taking education courses.
To make sure their needs are met, it has offered classes in the early mornings before preschool starts or afterwards in the late afternoons, all while trying to fit each cohort’s changing schedules.
That can make for terribly long days for working students, says Kelli Chelberg, an education faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation.
Out of necessity, tribal colleges have experience getting creative with their course offerings.
For years, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College has offered digital Canvas courses and used Zoom to expand its classes to far-flung outreach centers and satellite campuses.
That experience made the transition to distance learning easier amidst pandemic closures, showcasing the resiliency of the college’s programs: “We didn’t have as many hiccups as other areas may have had,” Haskins says.