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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Head Start marks 50 years of lessons

Small lessons learned early helped three Spokane-area residents succeed.

The three are graduates of Head Start, the federal early-learning program for low-income children that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Geri Gaddy Singh learned to share and sit down for meals in the Head Start classes she attended in Hillyard. The 28-year-old is an early-childhood special education teacher at East Farms Elementary School.

Logan Beadle learned social skills and how to spell. The 32-year-old is an Army National Guard reservist and a successful insurance salesman.

Tara Dowd learned her ABCs and that being in school means keeping a schedule. The 35-year-old has an MBA in health care management, is a manager for United Way and recently started her own business.

Head Start launched in 1965, initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and considered a weapon in his war on poverty. So far, 32 million low-income children nationwide have gone through Head Start.

“I still have pictures from Head Start. A lot of my memories are happy and I remember being well taken care of,” Dowd said. “We have to have access to that kind of programming to end the opportunity gap. Everyone needs an equitable chance at success.”

The national program overseen by each state costs about $1 billion annually. It offers free preschool, education, nutrition, health screenings, family support services and support for children with disabilities. Families earning no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines qualify; for a family of four, that’s about $31,000 annually.

“It really is to try to get these kids on a fair playing field,” said Sally Aman, a National Head Start Association spokeswoman.

But there is a downside, she said.

“We are not able to serve all the children who qualify for the program,” Aman said.

In Spokane, “the waiting list is 75 to 100 deep,” depending on the location, said Patty Allen, director of Spokane’s Head Start.

Each state authorizes Head Start providers, which can include churches, community centers and schools. Spokane’s program, which costs about $9.4 million annually, has been run by Community Colleges of Spokane since 1973.

Thousands of children from Spokane have gone through Head Start since 1965. The program started with 60 kids for eight weeks and has grown to nearly 900 annually in Head Start and Early Head Start – an extension of the federal program that works with pregnant moms and children up to age 3.

But around 60 percent of children eligible for the program are not enrolled. Allen also oversees Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, which mirrors Head Start. The state-funded program is Washington’s answer to helping kids not able to find a spot in Head Start.

Beadle, the National Guard reservist, said Head Start “played a big role in jump-starting my path in education. I’ve always seemed to have a leg up on my classmates. I’m a big fan of those types of programs. I believe the better foundation you have, the better chance you have in succeeding.”

Dena Chappell, center manager for Holmes-Logan Head Start, said there are many goals for the federal early learning program.

“The biggest thing we do in Head Start is the socialization piece. The academic piece doesn’t come easily if they don’t have the socialization piece first.”

Children at Holmes Elementary moved around play stations almost without complaint recently, painting pictures, plunging plastic dinosaurs into water, working with Play-Doh, connecting puzzles and playing house at the “dramatic play station.”

The station encourages social interaction, explained lead teacher Deanne Wilson. A group of boys had gathered at the table for mealtime. They alternated serving, pretending to eat and washing dishes.

The dramatic play area changes. It could be an office or a beauty salon or a veterinary clinic.

“I think it gets them interacting with other kids,” said Lacie Bateman, a parent volunteer. Her daughter, Pandora, is enrolled in Head Start. “They are social butterflies compared to their dad and I,” Bateman said. “I can’t speak highly enough about the program.”

The program is literacy heavy, Wilson said. Children hear stories, learn letters and letter sounds, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes and sing each other’s names. They also spend about 30 minutes a day outside learning motor skills.

“We educate kids to play,” Chappell said. “They are provoking questions and that’s helping them learn.”

While the federal program is celebrating a 50-year run, measuring its success has been limited to small groups.

“Once they leave Head Start and go into school, it’s really hard to track how the program had an impact,” said Aman, the national spokeswoman.

A recent national study tested about 2,300 students for kindergarten readiness. Results showed students scored high in literacy, math, social-emotional skills, cognitive skills and physical ability. Community Colleges of Spokane recently reported results in those five areas, and most were ready for kindergarten in the categories of social-emotional and cognitive skills, language, and literacy. About 50 percent were still struggling in math.

Another national report showed that children who attended Head Start were more likely to graduate from high school than their peers, according the National Head Start Association.

“We’re getting better,” at tracking progress, said Wilson, the Head Start teacher. But kids come to the program at all levels, and many of the gains made don’t fit into neat categories. “How do you gauge a kid who can’t sit for a story for five minutes to one who can sit through a whole story?”

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