By Crystal Conzo '16
The Head Start program is designed for young, at-risk children, but its impact extends beyond child development.
Fifty years ago, Head Start was envisioned as a federally funded pre-school program that would break the cycle of poverty. According to the Head Start website, upwards of 33 million vulnerable children, ranging from ages birth to five, have benefitted from its comprehensive services since then. However, a visit to Shippensburg Head Start adjacent to campus quickly illustrates that the benefits of the program have a far wider reach than just those children enrolled.
In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. He enlisted politician and activist Sargent Shriver to assemble a panel of experts to design a program that would meet the needs of young children living in poverty. Project Head Start was launched in 1965 as an eight-week pilot designed to meet the emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychology needs of its participants.
Over the last fifty years, Head Start has grown to include full-day, year-round services and has expanded to urban and rural areas in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and US territories.
Shippensburg Head Start originated as a five-week summer program at Nancy Grayson Elementary School. According to Doris Kibler, former Head Start child and current home-based visitor, the staff did health checks, held a graduation ceremony, and funded a field trip to Fantasyland in Gettysburg.
In 1971, Shippensburg University began operating the local Head Start program at Rowland Lab School, and today it is located in the Cora I. Grove Spiritual Center off Adams Drive.
According to Linda Butts ’01-’09M, current director of Shippensburg Head Start, the Shippensburg program serves families whose income is up to 100 percent of the poverty line; additionally, 10 percent of these children must be diagnosed with a disability. Ship’s program, in particular, is sometimes able to serve families whose income is 130 percent of the poverty line and has well over the 10 percent disability requirement.
Head Start is divided into home-based Early Head Start and center-based programs; in this region, both programs extend to Shippensburg, Carlisle, and Newville. Center-based programs occur at a Head Start center, and each child goes to class four days a week, five hours a day. Home-based programs allow teachers to travel to each family’s home on a weekly basis for one-and-a-half hours, with a biweekly socialization day.
There are currently two on-campus and two off-campus center-based classrooms
in the area; each center-based classroom is composed of seventeen or eighteen children. Altogether, the program serves 110 children, forty in Early Head Start home base and seventy in center-based programs. According to Anne Nickles ’74, previous director of Shippensburg Head Start for twenty-five years, home-based programs were added in the 1990s to make Head Start even more comprehensive.
“Home-based programs added the opportunity to serve children and families who are in more rural areas. That was the reason we started home based in our area. We had kids living very far away from the centers.” The program, she said, strives to make participation convenient and accessible to the family.
The SU Council of Trustees governs the Shippensburg Head Start program. According to Nickles, Ship is one of the few universities to offer a Head Start program, and the institution has been very committed to the program in the last forty-four years. Because the Shippensburg area does not have a wide variety of churches and schools that are able to adopt the extensive responsibilities of Head Start, Nickles and Butts have been thrilled with the partnership that grew between the two establishments.
Butts views the relationship that has arisen between Head Start and Ship students as a win-win. “We receive the extra hands to provide quality education and services to children and families, and they build up their experiences and resumes.”
The parents are pleased with the partnership as well. Autumn Thomas, former Head Start child and current Head Start parent, said, “It’s a safe environment and easily accessible.”
Fifty years of the national Head Start program is a huge milestone for all involved.
Nickles said that Head Start has been a “political football at times.” There’s a lot of money involved, and budget cuts are always a possibility. Sometimes politicians want to use the funding elsewhere, and when this happens, it can be difficult for directors to pare costs to minimize the impact.
“It’s very meaningful to me, because I remember a number of times my heart would sink and I was like, ‘That’s it. We’re done. We’re not going to make it this time.’ But it always worked out,” Nickles said. She believes that one of the reasons that the program has worked so well is because it always has been on the cutting edge. It has served as a model for what is appropriate and best practice.
Abigail Newburger ’78M-’84M, Head Start education consultant for thirty years and current volunteer, added that the program “leaves a lot of room for individuality. Head Start is individual in the way that it’s administered and designed.”
Fifty years is only the beginning. “As we move forward into Head Start’s sixth decade, Head Start is committed to take the lead in improving the well-being of our children, preserving and supporting their families, and strengthening the neighborhoods and communities in which they grow,” Butts said.
Parental involvement is one of the key components to the program. “We work with the parent, who is their child’s first teacher, to develop goals, establish a supportive learning environment, and refine and build upon their child’s skills in various established domains: social emotional, language and literacy, approaches to learning skills, physical health, cognition and general knowledge,” Butts said.
The staff also assesses children tri-annually to determine their education needs strengthened. Butts notes that parents have acknowledged the positive effects that the program has on their children. “On average, Head Start graduates rank higher in language, literacy, social conduct, and physical development than their non-Head Start peers.”
The program has an open-door policy that gives parents the opportunity to work with their children in the center at any time. The program also promotes parents involvement by giving them the opportunity to help build their child’s curriculum. “Parents are able to talk to the teachers about what they want their child to be learning,” Butts said.
Head Start also keeps families up-to-date through the monthly newsletter. The issues typically include information on staff, safety, classroom news, upcoming events, meetings, and even recipes. Though male parents often are less involved in the child’s learning process, the faculty has formulated a program to specifically target fathers with activities that meet their interests. The September/October newsletter featured “Dad’s Day” and advertised other events for men, such as “Share Your Trade Day” and Male Involvement Committee meetings.
Head Start also hosts Family Fun Nights for kids and their loved ones. According to Thomas, the most recent night had a Dr. Seuss theme. Children completed arts and crafts and played Dr. Seuss-style bingo. They were rewarded with prizes such as books and bookmarks. Attendees also feasted on green eggs and ham, if they were brave enough to try it. The Family Fun Night was not only engaging but also beneficial to parents. Thomas said that staff created individual IDs by collecting height, weight, and eye color data from each child.
“Any problem I’m having at home, they’re there for me,” Thomas said of the staff.
The children aren’t the only ones who grow and evolve. “Parents set goals not only for their children but for themselves,” Butts said. Many parents join the Head Start council and committees; some parents further their education in college and often are able to leave a violent home because of the staff support and community resources.
A Broad Impact
Head Start has had a significant impact on staff members as well. One of the greatest rewards for Nickles was to see the consistent child, parent, and staff growth. “When you’re in a smaller program, you can really see things happen. …I had the opportunity a number of times to witness Head Start kids go on to college. I actually see them walking on campus and say to myself, ‘Yepper, that’s little so and so.’”
The staff goes above and beyond. Thomas can attest to their dedication: “With the Family Fun Night, my fiancé ended up having to work from 3:25PM until midnight, and I didn’t have transportation to get there. They came and picked me and my two daughters up, and then brought us home.”
The program is an inspiration for faculty success as well. It helped Newburger to co-author Teaching Numeracy, Language, and Literacy with Blocks. As the title suggests, the book helps teachers observe and plan for children’s play with blocks. Newburger and her colleague designed the chapters for different age levels: birth to six. The book as a whole can be used in any early childhood program. Because the text is written with a basic vocabulary, the idea is that all family, staff, interns, and volunteers are able to pick it up off the shelf and understand it.
The program has impacted Nickles through the many relationships she has built as director. “I got a postcard from one of my past parents who moved to Florida…[she said] ‘Come down; I’ll show you around.’ I can’t wait!’”
One of the joys for Nickles was that the program is small enough that she could get to know all the people involved and form bonds like this. She sees former Head Start students and parents at baseball games, church functions, and other community events. She believes the Ship Head Start program is unique in this way—it is able to create personal connections between staff and program participants.
Head Start has made a positive impact on many lives. Nickles stressed that the fiftieth anniversary is a huge accomplishment. Thomas added, “I don’t know what it would be like to not have my children in the program.”
They encourage any eligible families who don’t know about the program to call the office and get their children on the waiting list. As Newburger would say, the only flaw inherent within the program is that it isn’t available for all children.