Though Howard County’s 322 Head Start preschoolers devoted a large portion of their summer advancing their reading, math, and social skills, it was not at the expense of creative, entertaining, and educational pursuits in the world at large.
“During the summer, not only do we implement an academic enrichment component but we strive to include a camp experience that is both exciting and culturally enriching for our 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old students,” said Howard County’s Head Start Director Alice Harris. “If you don’t create an experience that is both exciting and enriching you are more apt to lose students at a critical point in their learning development.”
That “camp experience” is Howard County’s Head Start Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) and, during the 2016-17 school year, it lasted for seven weeks. The SEP provided trips to a variety of fascinating locations via buses as well as stimulating activities brought into classrooms from outside sources.
A sampling of activities the preschoolers enjoyed outside their classrooms this summer included “EricEnergy” conducting science experiments and dancing amusingly to music in the Blackbox Theater at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City; children pretending to cook, serve food, and ring up orders in a simulated diner at Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore; and youngsters petting and feeding sheep and goats at Clark’s Elioak Farm in Ellicott City.
In their own classrooms, children delighted in special activities led by instructors other than their Head Start teachers and assistant teachers. A few examples are JumpBunch coaches introducing preschoolers to football, a yoga instructor guiding little ones through slow physical and mental exercises, and musicians affording 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds opportunities to tinker with instruments.
While the SEP has been a mainstay of the Howard County Head Start program since 2002, the 2016-17 school year was the first time all of Howard County’s Head Start students were able to attend school for a full day (6.5 hours) and year-round (51 weeks).
Though students spent fewer hours in their regular program in the summer than in the fall, winter, or spring, there was still an emphasis on furthering children’s academic and social skills. Each child was assessed at the beginning of the summer program to determine what academic and social areas he or she could improve, and then teachers worked with children either individually or in small groups to strengthen their weaknesses, according to Education Coordinator Donald Corbin.
It doesn’t take an early-childhood education expert to figure out the benefits of this year’s schedule and approach. Not only did students experience zero summer learning loss this school year, they also had multiple opportunities to improve their academic and social skills, including individualized instruction geared toward their specific needs. The SEP also broadened their cultural horizons by exposing them to new places and experiences. And it did not hurt that children looked as forward to going to school in the summer as visiting the beach because they knew that new, exciting, and varied experiences awaited them.
But perhaps the most important benefit could not be seen in classrooms or on SEP excursions, but it is an advantage that is beginning to make a world of difference not only to the children, but to their parents and the rest of their immediate families.
The full-day, year-round free Head Start program for low-income families has served as a significant benefit because it allows Head Start parents to improve their careers without concerns about child care, according to Ms. Harris. “Head Start parents can return to school full-time, advance their employment prospects, and earn a sustainable income that increases their quality of life in Howard County,” she said.
Gwen Hebron, who spent 26 years as a Head Start teacher or assistant teacher and just completed her 11th year as a Head Start family service worker, said that the full-day, year-round program has removed the child-care “barrier” for parents and therefore more Head Start parents are working toward self-sufficiency than previously. “Child care was so expensive that parents weren’t working because they couldn’t afford child care,” acknowledged Ms. Hebron.
The family service worker added that if Head Start didn’t provide cultural experiences, some students wouldn’t get them because their parents couldn’t afford the costs associated with them.
Rene Briscoe, a self-employed hair dresser and the only wage earner in her family, is reaping multiple benefits from Head Start’s extended program.
In addition to her 4-year-old daughter, Ryan Murphy who attends Howard County’s Head Start program, Ms. Briscoe has three other children (ages 15, 12 and 1). “Just having an infant (and with Ryan in Head Start), I can get a lot of stuff done,” she commented. Ms. Briscoe said that with Ryan in school so long, she is able to cut and style hair for a living as well as spend time online learning what’s needed to pursue her dream of starting her own hair salon.
Ms. Briscoe is grateful to Head Start for affording Ryan enrichment opportunities that she admits her preschooler probably would not have been exposed to without SEP. “It costs a lot of money for camps,” noted the mother of four.
Adding hours to the day and weeks to the school year did not come at the expense of reducing the number of preschoolers attending Howard County’s Head Start program – quite the opposite. The number of 3- to 5-year-olds attending Head Start increased from 35 students in 2002 when SEP was just getting off the ground to 322 in 2017.
Financing has been the key to boosting Howard County’s Head Start program to the point it has the potential to transform hundreds of families’ lives.
“Head Start has benefitted greatly through the collaborative efforts and resources provided by the Maryland State Office of Education and the Office of Head Start to facilitate a full-day, year-round comprehensive school readiness program,” said Ms. Harris.
The community has also been instrumental to expanding Howard County’s Head Start program. The seven Rotary Clubs of Howard County – Columbia, Columbia Town Center, Columbia-Patuxent, Elkridge, Ellicott City Sunrise, Ellicott City and Howard West – raised more than $31,000 to fund this year’s SEP.
The seeds for this colossal Rotary support were sown when the Sunrise Rotary Club of Ellicott City approached the Community Action Council of Howard County (CAC) that oversees Head Start, about starting a summer program for low-income children in 2002. The Sunrise Rotary Club has lent its support continually since then, and, two years ago, successfully encouraged the other six Rotary clubs to join forces.
This year’s other major SEP donors include the Howard County Department of Social Services, Horizon Foundation, Transamerica, JPB Partners, Apple Ford and PNC Bank.
Another benefit to the year-round program is the elimination of a tremendous amount of administrative work because all Head Start students are automatically enrolled in SEP. Prior to the 2016-17 school year, parents had to apply to enroll their children in SEP, and Head Start staff had to make decisions about who could attend and adjust enrollment information.
In addition, extending the length of the school day and year has “created a sustainable workforce” resulting in teachers and assistance teachers being able to earn more sustainable wages throughout the year, according to Ms. Harris.
“I would sum up the SEP as a dream come true,” said CAC President Bita Dayhoff. “It was an initiative that started with a few students and was small in scope yet served as a bedrock on which we built a full-day, year-round program serving all the 322 children in Head Start.”
Those interested in supporting SEP may donate online on our WEBSITE.