Alachua County has enough funds through the federal Head Start program to provide early childhood education services for 561 children and families. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is only at 58% capacity.
The free program works with children age 3 to 5 who are low-income, homeless, in foster care, diagnosed with a disability or whose parents are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income. Through early childhood programming, Head Start helps reduce educational disparities by preparing children and their families to be successful in kindergarten.
“This is one of the most important ways that we can reduce educational disparities,” Dorothy Thomas, a founding member of Head Start location the CHILD Center said, “making sure that all children have access to the same type of high-quality resources when they’re young, so they’ll be prepared for kindergarten.”
Head Start usually begins in August and follows a similar schedule to the Gainesville public school calendar. But due to the pandemic and not receiving funding until Aug. 1, it has been hard for the service to reach its full capacity in the county. Their first locations opened in the first week of November, and there is still vacancy for about 230 children.
Head Start’s selection criteria uses a point system that favors the most underprivileged children and families. However, if not selected right away, they are put on a waitlist until a vacancy becomes available closer to their homes or to the center of their preference.
The pandemic isn’t the only change to Head Start over the past year. For more than 40 years, the Alachua County School District administered the program. The district was one of the few running a Head Start program in Florida, according to Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson.
The program is funded in five-year grant periods, and last August, the Episcopal Children’s Services won the grant instead. The non-profit organization based in Jacksonville received a $6.3 million grant to operate 16 Head Start locations across Alachua County, said Autumn Tomas, ECS’ vice president of Head Start.
There are two kinds of Head Start locations: centers directly operated by ECS or childcare partners in the community. They both follow the same standards and get the same support.
The CHILD Center, run under the Southwest Advocacy Group in Gainesville, has two Head Start classrooms and serves a total of 53 children. It has been a Head Start location since its inauguration in 2018, at first with the county public school system and now with ECS, said Thomas.
Thomas said she can’t say one entity run the program better than the other; they are just different types of organizations. The ACPS just oversaw one county, whereas ECS oversees Head Start programs in different locations, she added.
“ECS has economies of scale that allows it to provide a lot of its own internal supports,” she said, “whereas the ACPS relied more on connecting families to partners throughout the area to provide some of those supplemental services.”
The ECS has worked with children development and education for over 50 years in north and central Florida. Before coming to Alachua County, the ECS had run Head Start programs for over 30 years in north Florida, including Jacksonville and its surrounding area.
In addition to preparing kids to be successful in kindergarten, Head Start also works closely with parents to support their individual and parental needs. It teaches them about parenting and gives them tools to work for a better future for themselves and their children. Further assistance includes motivating their own education, helping them find a job, or providing them access to physical and mental health care as well as to dental and nutrition services.
“Part of that whole process is helping work with our families once they’ve enrolled in the program,” Tomas said, “and setting goals for not just the child, but also the family.”
The program runs Monday – Friday for seven hours. The start time varies according to the location, but it is usually 7:30 or 8 a.m., Tomas said.
“Our teachers are trained to go play with the kids, ask them questions and give them learning activities through the play,” Tomas said.
The Head Start program and centers also want to make diversity and inclusion part of the discussion. Thomas said they want their children to be exposed to different kinds of people, beliefs, ideas and cultures, either by their own backgrounds or even through the books, materials and toys they work and play with.
“It is vital that our children look at what’s in their classroom and see themselves represented — see their families represented,” Tomas said.
Head Start has continued serving the community in person. Complying with the CDC guidelines, everyone must practice social distancing and wear masks when not eating. Classroom surfaces and tools used throughout the day are sanitized, and children go through screening questions and temperature checks upon arrival.
Apply online or via phone call at 904-726-1500.