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Early learning bill fails, but learning continues

Miciah Smiley, Mary Ramsey, speech language pathologist for Oak Harbor School District, and Denise Hodges learn at Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center. - Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times
Miciah Smiley, Mary Ramsey, speech language pathologist for Oak Harbor School District, and Denise Hodges learn at Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times

With this year’s Oak Harbor School District kindergarten schedule changes, parents emphasize the importance of early childhood education, a topic also important in the Olympia Legislative session. Head Start, Early Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) offer pre-kindergarten programs for low-income families.

While legislators failed to move the programs forward this year, the High Quality Early Learning Act of 2012 tried to establish a statewide preschool program that would be affordable for all families, since these programs only serve low-income families.

“It would really just be the next step for Washington to see that learning begins at birth,” said Kylee Allen, mother and advocate for Head Start and ECEAP. She and other parents will continue focusing on educating legislators about the importance of early childhood education despite the bill failure.

“All children should have access to a high quality preschool regardless of their income level,” Allen said.

However, President Barack Obama did provide more funding for Head Start in his budget than had been included in previous years, which Allen said is heartening. Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded and ECEAP is state funded.

School takes place at Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center in Oak Harbor, a partnership between Head Start and the Oak Harbor School District special needs preschool.

There’s always a wait list for the programs, which is “disheartening,” said Head Start manager Betty Judd, who would like to see all 4-year-olds have a preschool experience.

“It’s not like we’re practicing kindergarten. We’re actually doing what is needed at this stage of development,” Judd said. “Research supports that quality interactions from the time an infant is born makes a difference with achievement later in life.”

Allen entered the program in 2005 as a single mom of three young children. Since then, she has personally experienced the vast growth of her children through the Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Head Start serves approximately 20,000 children in the state.

“Instead of focusing strictly from an academic viewpoint, they do it from a child’s viewpoint,” Allen said. The children learn through playing and interacting with their peers.

“They look at all aspects of the child’s life: cultural, economic, personal,” Allen said.

A special aspect of the program is the focus on parent involvement. Teachers set goals with the parents regarding the child’s education and visit their homes twice a year to check in, Allen said.

Heather Riley has a child in both Early Head Start and Head Start.

“Charley joined the program (Head Start) right before his fourth birthday and in just four short months, I am amazed at how much he has grown emotionally, socially, mentally and physically,” Riley said. “Head Start has taught my children not only letters or sounds but has taught them to be independent and successful.”

Allen has seen her children gain the skills they need to succeed through Head Start.

“A lot of the children that go through the program, this might be the most routine they have in a day,” Allen said, adding that her children were reluctant about the program at first but, “you can just see that they really blossom as the year progresses.”

On the first day that one of her children attended kindergarten, Allen said the teacher asked her if her child had gone to preschool because he was the only one who could sit still during circle time. Now, her children read at above grade level and are in advanced math classes, Allen said.

Early Head Start is a home-based program for birth through 3 years old. It served 133,000 children and pregnant mothers in the state in 2010.

A home visitor comes once a week and works with the child to make sure the child is meeting developmental milestones, Allen said, adding that it’s a family-centered program because Head Start believes parents are a child’s first educators.

The family approach of the programs completely changed Allen’s life. When she joined, she was soon invited to meetings and to be involved in the classroom.

“The more I got involved, the more I realized about myself and how kids learn,” Allen said, adding that she learned how to look through the eyes of a 3-year-old and how to talk to children in a positive way. She learned how to advocate for children and she now teaches that to other parents as parent ambassador coordinator for the Washington State Association of Head Start and EPEAC.

“It taught me how to be a stronger family unit. They taught me how to put my family first and we’re just a stronger unit,” Allen said.

Through encouragement from the program, Allen finished school and was the first in her family to graduate from college, which she did with honors. Now, she said her children don’t consider college to be an option; it’s what comes after high school, which is something she was never taught as a child.

“It’s something that truly changed my life,” Allen said.

“I feel so very lucky that my children are able to be a part of such an excellent program. Something I would like to see in the future for the Head Start Program is that families, no matter their income, may be a part of Head Start. I truly believe that my children have such an advantage by being a part of Head Start and Early Head Start,” Riley said.

 

Those interested in advocating for early childhood education can contact wsaparentambassadors@gmail.com.

 

 

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