Head Start Threatened By Department Switch

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As Payson Head Start begins enrolling for the 2003-04 school year, the agency has learned that some of its most important services could be in jeopardy.

"We just got notice a few days ago that President Bush wants the program moved from the U.S. Department of Health Services to the U.S. Department of Education," site manager Lynne Winans said. "That would stop all of our health screenings and our work with families."

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Parents Maria DeLara (left) and Marcelina Perez recently visited the Payson Head Start classroom to teach students how to make tortillas. Engrossed in the task are (left to right) Danielle Bland, Shayla Shannon and Sadie Sweeney.

Head Start is a 38-year-old federally funded program for lower income families and children with disabilities. It is designed to help children learn social and self-help skills, literacy and school readiness skills, and to develop in each child a feeling of self-respect, self-confidence, self-reliance, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility.

"Head Start is not just an early childhood program, but a program that strives to build strong, self-sufficient families that in return build strong, self-sufficient communities," Winans said.

As it currently operates, Head Start provides a full range of individualized services in the areas of education, early childhood development, medical/dental, mental health, nutrition and parent involvement. It helps to ensure family access to medical and dental exams and follow-up with treatment as needed, assure that children are up to date with their immunizations, teach children proper nutritional practices, and ensure children access to wholesome meals and snacks.

"If it goes over to the Department of Education, they don't supply services as far as family contacts," Winans said. "We do home visits with the family; we set family goals -- there wouldn't be those sorts of interactions."

Winans takes exception to Bush's rationale for wanting Head Start under the Department of Education.

"One of the reasons Bush is wanting to do this is that he feels we need to be more academic, and that if we were under schools we would be forced to be more academic," she said.

"But we do the literacy and we do all the pre-readiness for kindergarten. That's our argument: to come into the classroom and see what's going on. We may do it through play, but we do it. He wants it to be a stricter program, but (pre-kindergartners) are not developmentally ready for that. They're still at the age where they need to learn through play."

Several local parents whose children have been or are currently enrolled at Payson Head Start endorsed the program as it is now structured.

"Head Start provided many opportunities for my family," Melody Donaldson said. "While our children were enrolled in the program, we benefited from many parent trainings that enabled us to become better parents and community members."

Ida Sutton, whose son, John, is currently a student, says the program has been invaluable.

"John is a different boy since he started," she said. "His self-esteem is better; his control and behavior have greatly improved; ... and he is able to interact with others ... I have attended parenting classes. I was encouraged to attend the Rim Country Literacy Program and have learned to read myself. I appreciate the support the program has given me."

Yet another parent, Tiffany Lee, says it's a question of doing the right thing.

"Children born into families in poverty start at a marked disadvantage to their peers in middle-income and wealthy families," Lee said. "Programs like Head Start address issues like improving the richness of the early learning experience for not only young children, but their families as well."

Marcella Garner, another parent, called Head Start "a place of love and hope."

"The staff at Head Start treats every family with respect and kindness," Garner said.

The Payson Head Start program, which currently has 17 students ranging in age from 3 to 5, is located in a building at 1008 S. Westerly that at one time housed the first kindergarten in Payson.

Individuals or organizations that want more information or are interested in helping, as well as parents who think their children might qualify for the program, can call Winans or teacher Diane Pierce at 472-2738.

Winans also asks Rim country residents to contact their U.S. legislators and ask them to oppose any action that would result in a reduction of Head Start programs or services.

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