By Jillian Ogawa
A year ago, people asked Brownwyn Jesperson if her child had attention deficit disorder, but by enrolling her daughter in the Head Start program, Jesperson realized her child did not have ADD.
Head Start teachers were able to isolate and fix the problem by teaching her child appropriate social skills. Jesperson said her child has made a 180-degree turn from being impolite to being a polite, sweet girl.
But Head Starts nationwide are concerned Head Start”s curriculum of teaching social well-being may be threatened. According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Education, President George W. Bush”s “Early Childhood Initiative” seeks to realign Head Start”s curriculum to emphasize early reading and language skills.
The initiative also includes moving the program from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, as well as moving Head Start”s funding to state control. Bush feels this will help increase coordination between Head Start and states, resulting in preschoolers being more prepared to go to public elementary schools.
Head Start, a federal program serving low-income families, strives not only teach academics, but social well-being as well, said Melody Pedersen, the executive coordinator of Mountainland Head Start. This includes teaching children about nutrition and helping their families learn about community resources.
Some parents and teachers of the Utah Mountainland Head Start disagree with Bush”s initiative, saying Head Start”s focus on parent involvement and children”s health would be lost.
The parents and teachers are also concerned about Utah”s education budget. The budget is tight all ready, and some Head Start parents are worried states will dip into Head Start funds to help in other areas, which could possibly phase out the federal program.
“I have concerns that there are other agendas for Head Start,” Pedersen said. “Bush is stressing literacy, but Head Start is a very comprehensive program.”
Jesperson, a single mom of two children, attends school and works fulltime. Her schedule does not leave much time to be with her children, she said. But Head Start has taught Jespersen”s daughter social skills and manners, things she worked hard to teach her children but didn”t have time to.
“Head Start fills the holes you can”t get to,” Jesperson said. “She”s more well-behaved. I know after Head Start that it wasn”t attention deficit disorder; she just needed be taught.”
Jesperson is also part of a Head Start parents council, where parents vote on where the funds go, how they are spent and what is taught in classrooms.
“Their feedback is what is what we teach the children,” Pedersen said. “We know the parent is the primary teacher of the child. We want them to be onboard on what is the child comprehending that year.”
Some parents on the council are concerned states would push certain guidelines and force teachers not to teach the whole picture. Parents and volunteers are distributing a petition, expressing their desire for Head Start to remain in the Department of Heath and Human Services and for its funds to be directed straight to Head Start organizations instead of going through the state government. But if the initiative goes through, the reauthorizing of funding will take effect in September.
“If the program is not dismantled, it is definitely going to get watered down,” Petersen said.
Head Start serves about 900,000 preschoolers nationally, and about 6,500 of them are in Utah. Mountainland Head Start, which is located in Provo, has 31 classrooms throughout Juab, Wasatch and Utah Counties, and has an enrollment of 817 preschool students. Although the program is federally funded, Pedersen said, each classroom all ready designs their own Head Start program according to what their community needs, even though President Bush”s initiative wants to make Head Start more local.
For example, Utah County has many low-income students, single parents and immigrants, Pedersen said. The programs in Utah County strive to serve the families of college students, as well as have at least one staff member in the classroom who speaks Spanish.
BYU student Justin Pack is a volunteer at Mountainland Head Start and works with the children of Spanish immigrants. He serves mostly as a translator because some of the children only speak Spanish, but he says his job “is not so much translating but just being their friend.”
Pack said he takes pride in seeing the children”s confidence grow as they interact and learn English. “It will give them a great advantage in elementary school,” Pack said. “They wouldn”t know English otherwise.”
Pack said the Head Start program also helps the families of the preschoolers learn English because “the kids bring the language home. Most parents don”t learn English until the kids learn English.”
Because Head Start is not directly under the Department of Education, individual Head Starts can tailor their curriculum to their students needs, Pedersen said. Some objects in classrooms of the Head Start on 1002 South 1100 West in Provo are labeled with English and Spanish words.
“That helps integrate their own language to the classroom, so they can feel comfortable,” Pedersen said.
Head Start strives to help preschoolers with disabilities feel comfortable, Pedersen said.
“If the child is diagnosed with disability, I make sure the classrooms and routines are set up to help the children integrate,” Pedersen said.
For example, if a preschooler with a disability needs to continually work with a therapist, Head Start has partnerships with a therapist to come and help the child while in the classroom. All the children in the classroom participate in the therapy so the disabled child is not singled, Pedersen said.
“I can come up with solutions to help that child be successful,” Pedersen said. “My equipment, my teaching staff, my curriculum reflect the different needs in the different classes.”