Local Head Start program maintaining success

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Diane Glidewell

The national Head Start program began in 1965 with the mission of giving economically disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds a "head start" in getting ready to learn in school and, thereby, a head start on being successful, productive citizens.

Ella Allen, now the executive director of the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council, Inc., the non-profit organization that operates the Head Start program in Butts and six other counties, was in the group that helped bring Head Start to Butts County in the 1960s. Thousands of local children and their families have benefited from the program in the intervening years and continue to do so daily.

Head Start Director Elaine Brown began working with the program in 1976. She is proud of the Head Start, Early Head Start, and pre-kindergarten programs that the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council currently operates, serving 789 children in Butts, Newton, Henry, Spalding, Lamar, Pike and Upson counties.

McIntosh Trail programs have not only received praise locally, but they have also received favorable evaluations on the national level. Every three years the program undergoes a federal review by a team of roughly 10 individuals from across the nation who spend a week examining the various aspects of the program.

"The last three or four reviews have found us in 100 percent compliance with no recommendations," said Brown, who has served on numerous panels to evaluate programs in other states.

Brown explained that there are almost 2,000 federal regulations, plus state standards, which Head Start programs must meet. The federal review team visits all centers (seven of them for the McIntosh Trail Council), reviews records, and interviews members of the board and parents.

"They look at everything," said Brown.

In April 2008, the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council was presented the Program of Excellence Award by the National Head Start Association. This is the highest award given in Head Start, and at one time only 25 programs in the nation had received it, according to Brown.

"It recognizes Head Start programs that demonstrate a high level of performance and whose programs demonstrate a positive impact on the lives of children, families, staff, and community," Brown stated. She said she was told by one Head Start authority that the McIntosh Trail Council was probably the only program in the nation that was both a Program of Excellence and had been found by the federal reviews to be 100 percent in compliance with no recommendations made for improvement.

One reason the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council received the Program of Excellence Award was its special initiatives above and beyond the requirements for the program. The special initiatives include breast cancer awareness, fatherhood involvement, decreased referrals for children with behavior issues, and education about obesity and diabetes.

These initiatives identify specific goals, and the results are tracked. There has reportedly been a substantial increase in mammograms and breast self-exams for staff and parents, there has been a large increase in the percentage of fathers/father figures who participate in Head Start activities, the number of consultations with parents regarding behavior issues increased and the number of referrals to outside mental health services decreased, and the obesity and diabetes initiative implemented the "I Am Moving, I Am Learning" program in 2009-2010 in Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms.

Getting an 'Early' Head Start

Early Head Start is a program that was funded in December 2009 with stimulus funds to serve pregnant mothers and children up to age 3. The McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council Early Head Start currently serves 80 children, 16 in Butts, 16 in Henry, 16 in Upson, and 32 in Spalding County.

The program will undergo a federal review at the end of this month.

The Head Start program serves three- and four-year-olds. Children in Head Start and Early Head Start are enrolled based on income eligibility, by being below the federal poverty level, receiving public assistance, or being foster children. Ten percent of the children enrolled in Head Start must be children with disabilities. If there are open slots in the programs, other children are accepted to fill them.

There are no income guidelines for the pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds. Brown said that McIntosh Trail was the second Head Start program in Georgia to be funded for pre-kindergarten when it applied for the program in the early 1990s. She said that many of the three-year-olds in Head Start transition into the pre-kindergarten program.

Each year, the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council conducts a community assessment study to determine the services needed in the areas it serves. The assessment looks at such data as unemployment, teen pregnancy rates, volume of bankruptcies, high school dropouts, children in day care, and those with disabilities.

For example, Brown spoke of the lack of placement for children from birth to 3. She said that although there is therapy for this group through Babies Can't Wait, a state program for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities, there is a void for educating them.

"Vocabulary at age 3 is one of the best indicators of high school graduation," said Brown. "Give-and-take interchange is what increases a child's vocabulary."

The vision of the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council is "to reach eligible infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and their families in our service area and positively affect their lives by assisting them in obtaining the skills necessary to achieve social competence and be cognitively and physically ready to learn and grow."

Helping families, too

Although Head Start focuses on the children, it recognizes that a way to improve the lives of young children is also to impact their families positively. Brown reflected that approximately 75 percent of the staff at McIntosh Trail were first parents and volunteers in the program.

"We have helped parents get associate degrees and then four-year degrees," she noted. "That makes a lasting impact on children's lives. That is evidence that Head Start works."

Head Start deals not only with education but with health, social, and cultural aspects of the child and the family. All children in Head Start get physicals, dental check-ups, and follow-up care. A mental health consultant works with the program, and all children receive two meals and a snack, which meet nutritional standards, each day.

One federal mandate for Head Start is that it receive 20 percent of its funding from the local community, to demonstrate that the local community desires and supports the program. The local funding may be in the form of financial contributions, services, or goods. The Butts County Board of Commissioners gives a donation to the local Head Start each year, and the Jackson-Butts County Rotary Club contributes through special projects.

Mercer University and Southern Crescent Technical College contribute training for staff. Speakers who come to training meetings without charge are counted as local contributors as are the parents and other volunteers who read to children and help teachers prepare for activities and carry them out.

The primary source of funding for the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council is federal funds, with in-kind donations being the second major source, according to the council's 2009 annual report. It also receives state funds; less than one percent of its funding comes from local sources other than in-kind donations. In turn, McIntosh Trail contributes financially to the communities it serves through employing 180 staff members, paying utilities and other operating costs for its centers, and paying for other programs for children and their families, such as health services.

The McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council will be moving into a new center in Henry County soon. The location was previously a day care on Carter Avenue in Locust Grove. "It is always difficult to find space," said Brown.

The location of the Butts County center, near the Butts County Parks & Recreation facilities, is also the site of the administrative offices for the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council.

"I think Head Start works. It is designed to make an impact on the family," said Brown. "Collaboration has been our word for years. We welcome all volunteers."

Brown said she is sure the Head Start staff can find something any volunteer would be comfortable with doing.

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On the net:

McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Development Council: www.mtecdc.org

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