Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012
Early start on education: Neediest children develop minds, bodies
In the race to receive an education, some of the youngest learners heeded the starter pistol last week.
The Early Head Start program, for children younger than 3, is new to Los Banos and opened in a two-room portable on the north end of San Luis High. The campus already has a Head Start program for ages 3 to 5.
Master teacher Roxann Garcia said a dozen children started on the first day of school Aug. 16, with classes for infants, 0-18 months; toddlers, 18-30 months; and twos, 2½ to 3-year-olds.
"We have a curriculum, we offer music, literacy activities, story time (and) we build social skills," Garcia said.
For the youngest ones, Garcia said, routine is an important part of the process.
The children go home with learning activities they can continue with their parents. For a child to qualify for Early Head Start, the family income must be below the federal poverty level, or $24,817 for a family of three, unless the child has a disability. Also, the child's family must be working or going to school.
Each class has a teacher to student ratio of 1 to 4, and the site has a staff of seven who are credentialed for the program. The Early Head Start center in Los Banos is open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
In some programs in the county, such as in Dos Palos, credentialed teachers visit the homes of children in the program and work with the parents. Those communities come together twice a month so the children can socialize.
Children enrolled get complete physical, dental, hearing and vision examinations and follow-up treatment. There is also supplemental nutrition.
Linda Kaercher, director of Head Start, said the Merced County Office of Education has received federal program funding for about two years and about 200 children are enrolled throughout the county.
The curriculum builds language, pre-math and pre-reading skills, and is a way to speed up development, Kaercher said. The program goes beyond what a day care could provide, she said, as teachers are "specifically trained to help a child develop intellectually."
Kaercher said she's seen infants in the program surpassing preschoolers who aren't in a structured program. However, the need for Early Head Start outweighs the available funding, she said. About 17 percent of Los Banos lives below the poverty line.
The earlier the program can intervene, Kaercher said, the better chance a disadvantaged child will have to catch up to privileged ones. Preschool alone is not enough.
"The achievement gap doesn't start just the year before kindergarten," she said. "It starts at birth."
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at email@example.com.