More families may qualify for free pre-K

A photo from Lincoln County Head Start’s annual report shows a 2019 graduate. The program provides mostly low-income families with free preschool services.

LINCOLN COUNTY — With the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affecting the income of Oregonians — and those in Lincoln County, in particular — it’s likely that more families will meet the income threshold to receive vital, free preschool education through Head Start.

Decades of research speak to the short- and long-term benefits of preschool. Studies show pre-K graduates are better prepared to start grade school, graduate high school at a higher rate, and they have fewer interactions with the criminal justice system and a lower rate of incarceration than those who don’t attend preschool.

The Community Services Consortium’s Lincoln County Head Start is a free preschool program for mostly low-income families. It was closed to on-site classes along with the rest of the state’s schools in mid-March — with remote instruction and family support to finish out the school year — and like the Lincoln County School District, they’re currently in the process of preparing to bring kids back this fall. They didn’t halt their work in the interim. The staff has been self quarantined and reporting on any illnesses — with no serious incidents — and they’ve been set up to access all materials remotely from home offices. They’ve already begun work for next term, continuing to monitor and support the most at-risk children and those with special needs, and all families receive some form of outreach multiple times per week. The class sites have been sanitized, and to ensure they remain so, only one person, masked and gloved, is currently allowed at each location.

Director Suzanne Miller said, “This is a time when families need reassurance and some kind of idea about what to expect in the fall and for their children’s education, particularly at this important early age. We’re prepared. We’re planning for all possibilities.”

The program received a $90,000 federal grant to aid that preparation, which has already been put to use purchasing protective equipment for staff, children and their families, as well as extra filtration for ventilation systems, electronic equipment for staff to perform virtual teaching, expanded assessment tools to include remote learning formats, family and child engagement, frequent site sanitization and more. They also received a $180,500 grant from the state of Oregon to increase staff salaries, allowing the program to be more competitive in hiring.

All three of the Lincoln County Head Start locations, Lincoln City, Newport and Toledo, are rated five stars through the Oregon Quality Rating and Improvement System. That’s the highest possible rating for child-care programs in the state, reflecting the staff’s high level of training and the cleanliness and readiness of the learning sites. They serve between 160 and 200 families each year, and Miller expects that many families who may not have previously qualified for the free program could be eligible this time around.

“Many people are without income that they would have had, and maybe at one time they would not have been eligible for Head Start but will be eligible now,” Miller said. The program is currently taking applications and, she said, with the first round of acceptances complete, it’s a good time to apply. All three sites have available slots. Applications can be completed online at www.communityservices.us, and paper applications are also available outside of each of the preschool’s three locations. Once you submit an application, a staff member will contact you to go over it and collect any needed documentation.

To be eligible for Head Start, children must be 3 or 4 years old by Sept. 1. “Families are automatically income eligible if they are homeless, receiving TANF, SSI, or ERDC, or if the applying child is in foster care,” Miller said, and the program can also accept a certain percentage of over-income families. They provide lunch and snacks — they served more than 40,000 meals in the 2018-19 term — as well as school supplies to all enrolled children

Head Start offers both part-day classes, either in the morning or afternoon, as well as full-day sessions. They anticipate the latter will begin Tuesday, Sept. 8, and the former will start on Sept 15. As it is for K-12, the beginning form of preschool education is still up in the air for the coming term. It’s possible Head Start could begin with remote learning before bringing the little ones back into the classroom. Even once on-site classes do commence, parents who prefer remote services need only request them, and they will be provided.

Miller said, “If we do have in-classroom teaching in the fall, drop off, for example, will change. We’ll have the child’s temperature taken in the car. We’ll have a face shield for the child, have them wash their hands, and then they’ll be brought into the classroom, child by child. It will be a very thoughtful process.” They’ll also be implementing social distancing measures — which can be a particular challenge with younger children — and working to acclimate them to not just wearing face coverings but also seeing their teachers wearing them. It’s possible class size could be limited to 10 children per classroom, Miller said, and group activities like “circle time” — in which children sit around a circular rug — will be facilitated with a larger surface and spaces marked for each child with their name.

The Head Start is adept at supporting children with special needs, given the high rate of poverty among participants, and Miller is conscientious regarding the potential trauma of the pandemic adding to that need for support, which also extends to children’s families. “We’re going to see a lot of the trauma that I think everyone is feeling, not only the little ones, the families, you and I, this is a different world we’re living in, and by understanding that and working with that as a reality, handled in a delicate and intelligent way, I think we can really reassure children and families — and keep us healthy,” Miller said.

Irrespective of COVID-19, the preschool is often a first exposure not just to learning but to social engagement and structure for its participants. “In addition to the education, they’re learning personal hygiene. We make sure we have nutritional advice for the parents, working with our partners at Oregon State University. Then comes the creative curriculum, where they begin to learn language and numbers, and we have science elements that are a part of the creative curriculum. We have a very rich curriculum, and it’s done with a lot of play, because children respond to that. Outdoor engagement in play and education will be key this fall,” the Head Start director said. “What this does is it builds an early foundation of how to be in the world when you’re little, and it helps parents understand that children need a routine, and once they learn a routine, when they go into school, they already know how to act in a classroom. They already know how to write their name. They already know about numbers. They’re getting what’s aptly called a ‘head start.’”

Miller said they work closely with parents to meet a full spectrum of needs, from rental assistance to medical care, enveloping families in a “web of safety.” Many parents even join the Head Start team as employees. “We’ve had tremendous success stories. One of our parents started at the entry level and fell in love with Head Start, and she got on a progressive professional plan. She ended up getting her bachelor of arts and becoming one of our best teachers, and she started out, really, completely in poverty and not knowing what she was going to do due to unforeseen circumstances in her life,” Miller said.

She said the remaining lack of certainty regarding how, exactly, classes will begin shouldn’t serve as a deterrent to applicants. “What’s important is that, no matter how we start, this isn’t going to last forever. You’re going to want your children to be enrolled in school,” Miller said.

Families are encouraged to contact the Lincoln City Head Start at 541-996-3028 for application or enrollment-related questions.

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