By Jennifer Lazzo
Head Start. It’s an easily recognizable name, but do you know what the program is designed to do? Head Start provides young children from low-income families and children with disabilities with one free year of education, preparing them to enter kindergarten ready to listen to instructions, play well with fellow students and lead by example. The students, along with their families, participate in health, nutrition, mental health and family engagement activities as well.
The funds provided by the federal program and its state-funded sisters, Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) and VPI+, sent 834 children from Greater Prince William to a classroom during the 2017-2018 school year. Classes have about 18 students and are taught by teachers who have state teaching licenses with early childhood education endorsements and an associates, bachelors or advanced degree in early childhood education.
“In the past three years, Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) has doubled the number of pre-kindergarten students served,” said Kathy Channell, supervisor of Head Start, VPI and VPI+. “I am very proud of the progress that our youngest students are making.”
“Ninety-five percent of a child’s brain is developed before the age of five,” she continued. “Children who attend a high-quality pre-K program are more likely to graduate from high school, be employed, not be retained in a grade, and not be incarcerated as adults.”
To qualify for the program, children must be four years old prior to September 30, live in a school attendance area supported by the program and meet income guidelines for the family. Head Start requires that a family of four have an annual income of less than $24,600, while VPI and VPI+ require that the family income be less than $49,200. “PWCS starts taking applications in the spring
and makes selections by May, but parents may submit applications at any time of the year,” Channell said.
Parental Involvement Is Key
Daniella Zappala has a unique viewpoint of the education program—both as a parent and someone working in the Head Start program. When her daughter started the program last September, “She knew her letters but was extremely shy. She was fine playing by herself,” Zappala recalled. “But now, she’s
sounding out words and reading, and she leads the whole group.”
Zappala likes many aspects of the program but says the weekly “homework” is her favorite. There are usually five or six activities from which to choose, such as finding shapes around the house, reading a book, playing outside or setting the table for dinner. “It’s simple, but it’s very important,” she said.
“The activities get the parents involved too.”
Parental involvement is key to the success of the Head Start program since parents are the first teachers children have. Parents are encouraged to volunteer in the classroom, take ESL (English as a Second
Language) classes, earn a GED and gain employment, among other educational activities.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in social work from George Mason University, Zappala started as a family service worker for four schools in the VPI+ program earlier this year. Now, she guides parents and families through the program just as she herself was assisted. “As a service worker, I see so many take advantage of ESL classes. I’m not one of the parents who needed to, but I know a lot of the parents who do are appreciative,” she said. “We do work with other organizations to assist our families, and we
help empower them to take the necessary actions in their lives and their children’s lives. It’s been amazing [working here]. I can pay forward what the program has provided for me and my family.
I can’t really know how they feel, but [I can] sympathize with their situations.”
Teaching Youths “How to Be People”
Parents like Zappala would not have such robust experiences without the dedicated teachers who teach with enthusiasm, compassion and professionalism. “Teaching Head Start gives me the chance to be creative in my approach to teaching by looking at things in a different way and doing what’s best for my students,” said Jill Jones, preschool teacher at Neabsco Elementary. “I also love that it gives me the chance to dance, sing, create art, and tell stories every single day!”
Prior to joining the program two years ago, she taught kindergarten for 13 years. Jones made the switch because “the early years are really about learning how to be a person. It takes practice to do that. Play-based learning is one of the best ways to practice skills like self-regulation, problem solving, negotiation and critical thinking. These are the skills that we want all students and adults to have.”
At the beginning of each school year, Jones and her assistant informally assess the students’ skills in math, language arts and social and emotional development to help set initial goals. They keep anecdotal
records throughout the year to assess students’ learning, which helps the teachers determine students’ interests, guide their planning and update their goals.
“We make individual goals for the students throughout the year. It helps us to focus on each child’s needs whether [they are] academic, social-emotional or speech [related],” she said. “It allows us to teach kids what they need when they are ready to learn it.
“Children are more engaged and self-motivated when they have some say about what they are learning and when we as adults listen to what they are saying,” Jones continued. “I find the growth to be truly amazing no matter what their goal is. When their eyes light up and they are proud of themselves, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Working with young kids is her true love and becoming a teacher was inevitable; many in her family teach. “I have learned to see the joy in the simple things. These are the things my students teach me
every day,” Jones said. “Head Start is so important because it is helping families. It’s an investment in our community and our future.”
For additional information, call Head Start at 703-791-8708 or visit pwcs.edu/academics___programs/head_start.
Jennifer Lazzo (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and editor who earned a B.A. in technical journalism and political science from Colorado State University. She lives with her husband and twin girls in Montclair.
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