For the book “The Story of Kennett” Joan and I interviewed Tamara Acuna, supervisor of the Chester County Head Start. Following are excerpts from the interview: “Head Start, a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services has a mission: To provide comprehensive, high-quality early childhood services to ensure that children and families can achieve individual success. We are funded federally, and we receive funds from the State of Pennsylvania as well.
Our capacity to serve is determined by the amount of money we receive. We have two hundred and fifty more youth in the Kennett area that qualify for Head Start than we can afford to fund.
To qualify, the family must be living at or below the 100% federal poverty guidelines, and the child must be between three to five years old. The child closest to kindergarten age receives preference, and the parents must have the means to provide transportation for their child to the Head Start Center. If the family does not qualify for our program, we try to refer the family to other programs, although there are few options due to cost and criteria for other pre-school programs.
We conduct two sessions a day; morning and afternoon. Each session is three and one-half hours each. We serve breakfast and lunch on site and serve family-style with staff included. We have our own food service on site and have a nutritionist from the county who plans the menus so that they are nutritious, as well as culturally appropriate. In our Kennett Square Head Start center, 80 percent of our students speak mostly Spanish, with a little English, and three of our five staff members are bi-lingual. We are implementing the family model, whereby different ages benefit from each other.
The family service worker is bi-lingual and develops a close relationship with families in their homes. On her first visit with each family, she conducts a survey and learns about the information, education and resources that the family needs, as well as the risk factors. She makes more home visits to families that are high risk and also makes referrals to the many services in the area. The center hosts two programs for parents each month. Some of the topics have been homebuyer options, parenting classes, behavioral health, as well as information about medical services.
Our teachers have higher pay than pre-school teachers, but lower pay than the school districts; however, they do receive health benefits and pensions.
We follow a curriculum, and when our children enter kindergarten, 88% are developmentally at par with their peers. Our greatest challenge is financial. It is difficult to fundraise beyond our current government funding, because it appears to the general public that we are adequately funded. If I had a large sum of money, I would like to enroll the 3,000 eligible children from the county in Head Start programs.
We would need funds for staff and administration. I also would fund transportation, which was ended a while ago. This is a real hardship for families, even though they have learned the art of car-pooling.
On the practical level, when one compares the cost of ameliorating education of a child in later years versus the cost of pre-school, it isn’t difficult to see where we need to be making our investment.
There are two state-funded Pre-K Counts programs that have started in southern Chester County. This is an effort to accommodate families, who have incomes that are below or equal to the 300% federal poverty guidelines. The program runs for six hours a day, five days a week.
There is a future trend that is in the works; next year Head Start will be moving from our half-day sessions to six-hour days, which would run from 8:30am to 2:30pm. In addition, we are pursuing the option of being licensed as a before and after school daycare center, which will accommodate working parents.
Another new endeavor on the horizon is developing a teacher home visiting program. This would involve having teachers visit families with children from birth to three years, to provide materials and education that will provide instruction and earlier support. The first five years of a child’s life is probably the most critical in creating a healthy foundation for a life time.”
Since this interview Chester County Head Start has gone on to full days but with new government regulations along with the loss of transportation we are serving 40% fewer kids. Our book showed that early childhood education may be the best use of our resources to improve outcomes and we are going in the wrong direction. We know how to do this, it just takes money. It is pay now or pay later.