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All children deserve a head start

Preparing all children for the educational experience

Head Start options in new yorks hudson valley


Want to know where Big Bird came from? He’s a product of the Head Start program. So are upwards of 25 million children—many of them in our own communities.

Created in 1965, Head Start, and its companion initiative for even younger children, Early Head Start, are federally funded programs of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Much more than just day care, the programs provide early childhood education, health and parent involvement services, and each year serve more than a million children and their families in all 50 states.

And in 1968, Head Start began funding the television series that would eventually be named Sesame Street, which inspires and educates children to this day.

A Head Start for under-privileged children

For lower income and other under-privileged Hudson Valley families, there are Head Start programs in Orange, Ulster, Dutchess and Sullivan counties that provide the same comprehensive assistance to help preschoolers and even infants get the educational opportunities they deserve. (Check with your local facility for Early Head Start availability.)

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Michele Conklin, the assistant program director at the Children’s Learning Center in Kingston, describes Head Start as an all-inclusive, need-based initiative designed to help families with more “complicated lives" ready their children for school. She defines complicated by “having a lot to deal with in their lives,” such as single parenthood, a family member’s incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness, or other life situations. Family workers assist parents by setting family goals, which Conklin says could be wide-ranging—from going back to school to securing stable housing.

Working to meet these goals links families to their communities and helps parents understand what their children need to be ready for school. “Parents are their child’s first and most important teacher,” Conklin says. “Research has shown that often children in these (more complicated) situations start school a little less prepared.  “Our goal is to have them school-ready, and that doesn’t just mean letters and numbers.”

Early Head Start Can Start as early as 6 weeks old

Kids who go through the program at the Children’s Learning Center, which is housed under Ulster County Community Action, Inc., can begin Early Head Start at as young as six weeks of age and typically continue until they “graduate” and begin kindergarten in a traditional setting. Because the first three years of a child’s life lay the groundwork for later learning, Head Start exposes children at an early age to concepts like sharing, taking turns and other social and emotional skills that ready them for kindergarten. Sometimes this is the first time they’ve ever been around other kids,” says Samantha Miriello, an Early Head Start teacher at the Children’s Learning Center.

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The fundamental mission of Head Start is to create an environment that allows children to successfully engage in developmentally appropriate experiences while fostering social, emotional, physical and cognitive growth. In addition to socialization, Head Start also helps families, as needed, with practical issues such as nutritional planning, car seat safety, access to food pantries and doctor and dentist referrals. Facilities may differ from one area to another, Conklin says, in ways such as classroom size or the length of the school day.  Those considerations are based on the needs of the local community, she said.

Head Start helps kids learn socialization and problem-solving

In Dutchess County, the Head Start program is administered by the Astor school, which has six locations countywide.  “The biggest thing that Head Start offers is learning these social skills—being able to engage with peers, ask for help and problem solve on their own,” says Ashley Webster, the center director for the Beacon site of the Astor school.

Kingston resident Ashley Terpening’s daughter and son, now 7 and 5, respectively, both went through Head Start at the Children’s Learning Center.  “It got my kids ready to go to school,” Terpening says. “They got used to being around other children their age, so now they’re comfortable in the classroom setting and with making friends.”

Terpening said that the program’s family workers helped her manage her time so she could go back to school. After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology, she is now an Early Head Start family worker at the Children’s Learning Center.

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Hudson Valley parents interested in the program can contact one of the Head Start facilities in their county to set up an interview. After an interview, the applicant’s eligibility is based on income, community needs and other criteria. Examples of “other criteria” would be if family members have a history of substance abuse or incarceration, among other issues, Conklin said. Acceptance into the program is based on need, rather than “first-come/first-served,” and factors such as those are considered strongly when weighing a family’s eligibility for Head Start, she said.

The program is free to income-eligible families and provides breakfast and lunch, and even free diapers to eligible Early Head Start families.

Jeff Simms lives in Beacon with his wife, son and cat.