By Kathy Hart-Jones
Special to the Voice
This month, early childhood educators and advocates celebrate the rich history and abundant successes of Head Start at the local, state and national levels. Head Start was launched in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to provide comprehensive health, nutrition, and education services to children and families living in poverty. Since its founding, Head Start has served over 35 million low-income children and families around the nation.
The West Haven Community House launched the first, and only, Head Start program in West Haven in 1978 with eleven children in one classroom. Since then, more than 5,000 Head Start children walked through the doors of the eight-classroom program at the Community House.
Head Start Awareness Month was first created in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan as an opportunity to share the power of Head Start and in recognition for its success in early childhood education and development, as well as support for the program’s whole-child and whole-community approach to supporting families on their path to success.
“We not only provide opportunities for children to develop the social, intellectual, and emotional skills they need to be successful in school and in life; we also connect parents to resources and tools they need to be advocates for their children. We ensure each child receives daily nutritious meals, vision, hearing, and other health screenings and referrals. We also require degrees and credentials of our teaching staff, and offer professional development and coaching to more than 40 employees in our Head Start program including 24 teachers and teacher aides,” said Patty Stevens, executive director of the West Haven Community House.
WHCH staff have been working in overdrive since March to adapt their teaching strategies, maintain enrollment, sanitize classrooms, make necessary health-related adjustments to facilities, and provide access to quality learning opportunities for children and families while constantly adjusted to new state, local, and federal COVID-19 and OEC (Office of Early Childhood) guidelines and safety requirements.
Due to the pandemic, the Community House shut down in mid-March, which not only disrupted learning but has interrupted the essential supports that many children and families depend on such as school meals, the services of counselors and social workers, and access to safe places. However, during those many weeks, teachers and staff continued to keep in touch with families and children via phone calls, video chats and weekly online newsletters that included fun learning activities, family resources and links to reading videos. The program reopened in the first week of July providing critical care for children so parents could work.
A typical day now includes greeting families at the door (instead of allowing them inside the classroom), conducting health screenings for every child, increased hand washing and teaching children to practice social distancing. All these measures are taking place in a safe, structured environment while children learn through play, which is central to children’s learning experiences.
There are roughly 2,000 days from the day a child is born until they go to kindergarten. In those days, weeks, months and years, it is critical for children and their families to have access to safe, affordable child care and resources to support children’s growth and development in a positive learning environment. “While we don’t yet know the full effects that COVID-19 will have on young people, we do know that the Community House will always be a beacon of hope for children and families, and will continue to be a leader in identifying, collaborating and implementing services that meet the changing needs of the West Haven community,” Stevens said.