Published Online: April 16, 1997

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A Rural Approach to Head Start

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  • Name of program: Head Start, one of 45 sites operated by Miami Valley Child Development Centers, including four "Home Base" programs.
  • Location: London, Ohio.
  • Children served: Preschoolers, ages 3-5, who have low-income parents. Income eligibility is $15,600 for a family of four.
  • Average cost: Free to parents.
  • focus: A full-day class for children of parents who are working or attending school full time. Program includes four major components of Head Start: education, health and nutrition, parent involvement, and social services.

London, Ohio

The children straggle in one at a time, managing a sleepy goodbye to their mothers or fathers before departing to different corners of the classroom.

One tromps around in a woman's high heels, clicking across the linoleum floor, while another asks for "the box" that sits on a top shelf above the sink and holds a favorite monkey puppet.

"They think it's alive," says Eileen Coil, the lead teacher in this full-day Head Start class in this rural town.

Coil has been a Head Start teacher for four years and talks about her students as if she were bragging about her own children.

There's Andrey, a giggly 3-year-old boy with his hair in cornrows, who communicated only in baby talk when he began attending Head Start last year. To help him improve his language skills, the teachers ask him to repeat words and sentences. His teachers say his speech is more intelligible now.

And then there's Brianna, who likes to gather classmates together for stories, Coil says. Not long after a family-style breakfast of toast, orange juice, and milk, Brianna was sitting in a chair holding a book, with a few other students at her feet.

London Head Start Center, which offers one full-day and one part-day class, is in Fairhaven School, a small brick building surrounded by corn and soybean farms.

About 40 minutes west of Columbus, the school, which also serves children with developmental disabilities, sits across the street from a minimum-security state prison. Sometimes, the inmates come as far as the road in front of the school to pick up trash, but teachers and parents have grown to accept that.

The Head Start staff prefers Fairhaven over their previous home in the basement of an elementary school.

"In a school setting, you're not sure how you're going to be received. They think you're just day care," said Wendy Shaw, an educational supervisor with Miami Valley Child Development Centers, the nonprofit agency that operates Head Start programs in the central Ohio counties of Madison, Clark, and Montgomery.

And the parents are happy to have a program that they know is preparing their children for kindergarten and that allows them to work full time.

Most Head Start classes are 3« hours a day, but this year, the London center began offering the full-day program because of the many parents who were working or going to school all day.

"It's been great for my kids. It made Hank real ready for kindergarten," said Bev Swank, whose daughter Emily is now in Coil's class. Last year, Swank, who works in a doctor's office, had to hire a baby sitter so she could keep working.

As in many rural areas, stable employment is not easy to find. "You usually have to go to the big city," Coil said. Some parents drive about 45 minutes one way to work at the Honda plant in Marysville. One works at Kmart, and some are employed by the county.

Full-time employment for parents, however, means they have fewer opportunities to volunteer in their child's Head Start classroom--one of the cornerstones of the preschool program.

"We're going to have to get pretty creative and look at different ways to measure parent involvement," said Scott Siegfried, the educational coordinator for Head Start agency.

The families who participate in London's Head Start program do not fit the stereotype of those who are eligible for government assistance. Many of the children live with both parents, the majority of whom work.

The London center also operates a "home base" Head Start program, which means teachers, who are called home visitors, travel to homes throughout the area to work with children and their parents.

Services like these are in greater demand in rural areas, where transportation is a problem. The children, however, are picked up once a month and brought to Fairhaven for the day so they can participate in group activities and use materials they might not have at home.

"We see 3-year-olds who have never worked a puzzle," said Nancy Florea, a home visitor.

Throughout the day, activities are designed to help students meet their individual goals for the month, such as learning colors, developing language skills, and working on projects with other children.

In Coil's classroom, some children sort seashells in the sand tables, identifying smooth and rough surfaces. They bury strainers into the sand and search for shells as if they were panning for gold.

At another table, children stir cups of salt with pieces of colored chalk, gradually turning the mixtures shades of green, purple, blue, and pink. Deb Davis, an assistant teacher, empties the little cups into a clear, plastic bottle, staggering the colored layers to create a design.

When the bottle is full, Davis calls the children back over to the table one by one.

"Tell me two colors we used in our bottle," Davis said. The children respond by pointing to the colors they name.

Coil's enthusiasm for what the children are learning is shared by her education aide, 19-year-old Amanda Barker. The aide points out that 3-year-old Marrissa is much less withdrawn than when she arrived last fall. "She seemed like such a baby. You had to rock her to sleep at naptime."

Head Start education aides don't usually take charge of classroom instruction, but because she has shown an interest, Barker reads stories to the group and leads songs. She says she enjoys working with children but hasn't decided whether she wants to pursue education as a career.

"I like being a part of seeing them accomplish what they couldn't do before," she says.

--LINDA JACOBSON

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