We know that investing in a diverse and qualified early learning workforce is key to the success of Preschool for All. As part of this commitment, the Multnomah County Preschool & Early Learning Division is proud to sponsor scholarships for Portland State University’s Indigenous First Steps, a 12-credit Indigenous Early Childhood Certificate program that uses Native language, culture, histories, and oral stories in order to promote culturally sustaining early learning.

“Turnover is historically very high in our field, and it’s especially challenging for educators who don’t typically see their culture represented in their workplaces,” said Leslee Barnes, director of the Preschool & Early Learning Division. “This program makes it easier for Indigenous educators to stay in the field by creating a culturally supportive professional community they can turn to throughout their career.” 

Planning for the Indigenous First Steps program began in 2019 when faculty at Portland State University (PSU) met with Tribal Nation educators in the Portland area whose vision for an Indigenous early childhood program was captured in a Native American and Alaska Native Student Success Grant from the Oregon Department of Education. The initial intention was to offer scholarships for existing programs, but what emerged was a commitment to reshaping education for Native and Indigenous communities. 

“As we examined the Early Childhood Certificate program coursework for the grant, the program realized that it needed to make a change,” said Ingrid Anderson, Ed.D., Associate Professor of Practice. “To make coursework relevant for Native Indigenous educators, we needed a different approach. We recognized the need to slowly and authentically build relationships in order to change our practices and coursework. It’s critical to decentralize the University and its western-Eurocentric models of education and instead focus on elevating traditional ways of learning and knowing in the certificate program.” 

 To begin the work, PSU faculty Maria Tenorio Ed.D., along with a Graduate Research Assistant, gathered Tribal Nation Elders, Knowledge Keepers, parents, early childhood educators, and community members from across Oregon to participate in focus groups and listening sessions to answer two major questions: What were your own experiences in early childhood, and what types of knowledges and experiences are central for young children to have today?

Following these conversations, the Indigenous First Steps faculty, Native doctoral students, and mentors identified several key themes which the team calls ‘learning strands.’ These strands serve as the foundation for the university’s 12-credit certificate program. The program seeks to Indigenize early childhood education, emphasizing alternative ways of knowing and demonstrating knowledge, distinct from school practices that are based on European and Western cultures.

“Working closely with an all-Native advisory team of professionals ensured pronounced effort in respecting and learning with a deepened understanding of the traditions and values reflecting Tribal Nation educational perspectives,” Tenorio told us.

Students in the program receive scholarships for participation, six of which were sponsored by the Multnomah County Preschool & Early Learning Division this past year. Beyond financial support for course completion, the program offers mentoring, books and learning resources, and a stipend to ease the burden on students, allowing them to focus on their education and community. 

A distinguishing feature of this program is its emphasis on experiential learning and knowledge representation. College textbooks are replaced with a wide variety of children's books and alternative modes of expression, such as dance and art. By redefining what constitutes valuable knowledge, the program creates a space where community values guide educational decisions. One student shared, “It truly felt like a group of people who cared and were interested in each other's stories and successes.”

Graduates of the program have the opportunity to advance in their careers, achieving teacher-qualified status and gaining a pathway to higher education if that’s something they desire. 

“Many of our students said this is the first time they've been in an all Native higher education setting with all Native teachers, mentors, materials, and books,” said Anderson. “We’re in the process of learning to create educational experiences focused on honoring students’ cultural capital and ways of knowing, and we have had a few students decide to come back to school and work towards their B.A. or their graduate degree.”

At the end of this first year, one scholarship participant said: “[This was] one of the most valuable opportunities I experienced this year. This course and its amazing professors helped me become a full-time PSU student. I would not be this far on my educational journey had I not had been offered this gift. Thank you all.” 

This past year, the program’s inaugural cohort included 22 Oregon students representing 14 tribal nations. As applications open for Winter 2024, we’re excited to be a part of its positive and lasting impact on children and educators in our community. You can find Indigenous First Steps Program information on their website.