Navajo Head Start interim director resigns

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 9-07

The man hired to help turn around one of the nation’s largest American Indian Head Start programs after funding was suspended by federal officials has resigned.

Francis Becenti, who served as interim director of the Navajo Head Start program, called it quits during late August – a little more than two months before his job there was to end.

Becenti said his decision to resign was spurred by not only the firing of Tommy Lewis as the tribe’s first superintendent of schools, but his status as a temporary employee, which meant no benefits, and a lack of support.

“I liked that job. I loved it,” he said. “I knew what I was just can’t work under those conditions on a daily basis.”

Becenti, 55, never considered working in early childhood education before he was hired in July 2006 to take over the troubled Navajo Head Start program. After all, the former president of Dine College and Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash., did not have any experience in the field.

But he said Lewis, who he had worked with in previous jobs, lured him in.

The tribe’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs were suspended in May 2006 after the federal Administration for Children and Families found local officials had failed to perform background checks on hundreds of employees. An investigation turned up dozens of employees with criminal records.

But the failed background checks were only part of the program’s problems.

A report by officials with the ACF obtained by The Associated Press found wide-ranging threats to children’s safety, such as broken, jagged play equipment; dogs and horses being allowed to roam through playgrounds; and broken heaters in classrooms.

In an interview with the AP earlier this year, Becenti described the situation as “a head-on train crash,” and he “the guy with the little blow torch trying to untangle the mess.”

“I’m always sort of queasy about going into a situation like that but so far it has worked out,” he said.

Navajo officials worked swiftly to correct the deficiencies cited, resulting in the almost immediate lifting of the suspension of the Early Head Start program. Months later, federal officials lifted the suspension for the Head Start program, which began reopening centers last October.

Council Delegate Leonard Anthony, who sits on the Education Committee, said the Navajo Nation survived the crisis, thanks in part to Becenti’s skills.

“I truly admired his leadership skills, although he never had any early childhood education (experience), the Head Start really needed that administrative leadership,” he said.

Federal head start administrators last visited the Navajo Nation in May, and Becenti said afterward that the tribe was given the unofficial OK to reopen centers as it sees fit.

But he urged it wasn’t the time to be complacent.

“We really have to recommit ourselves and our energy to increase our knowledge and skills to improve on service delivery ... and to make sure the program grows,” he said.

Becenti acknowledged some people were not fans of his management style, but he said “that’s fine. As long as they are doing their jobs, I like them.”

Although he enjoyed working in the Head Start program, deep down he said Tuesday that he missed being a college administrator.

Becenti now works as the associate dean of instruction at Navajo Technical College, where he said he hopes to retire.

“That’s what I’ve been trained for,” he said. “It’s just right where I belong, and it’s certainly a lot less stressful.”

Lavina Barton, the assistant department manager of the Head Start program is filling in as interim director, said Eddie Biakeddy, interim superintendent of the Department of Dine Education.

Biakeddy took over the department after the Navajo Board of Education voted in late July to fire Lewis. Lewis has said the board violated his due process rights and that he plans to challenge the decision.