NESD Head Start goes above and beyond so students can realize their full potential
It’s a typical weekday morning at the Aberdeen Head Start Center. The three classrooms in the building are humming with activity as teachers and assistants share math, language, and other early childhood education skills with their preschoolers. About 34 students come to learn and play in each of these classrooms every day. Half are here for morning classes, while the other half will attend the afternoon session.
Meanwhile, the staff in the Head Start kitchen have cleaned up breakfast and are busy preparing lunch for over 100 three, four, and five-year-olds, followed by a snack later on. Family service workers are assisting the students’ families and organizing the next parent-child field trip. Down the hall, the human resources department, which also happens to be the IT and transportation department, is running the cars, buses, computer network, and employee payroll at any given moment. Managers and coordinators are present everywhere, pitching in to help wherever they’re needed.
If this sounds like a well-intentioned facility, that’s because it is. But it doesn’t just operate on planning and schedules alone. All of the people who work here put in those extra small acts of effort and kindness that often times make the biggest impact. For example, no matter what position you have, everyone at Head Start is willing to take a moment and pick the weeds on the playground. And it isn’t uncommon for family service workers to drive parents to important appointments when they need a ride. On the day I visited the school, the education coordinator passed me multiple times with a wrench or other tool in hand, fixing and installing things in the building. And that human resources-IT-transportation department we talked about, that’s a one-man department checking off all those tasks. I also witnessed staff carefully setting up cubbies and putting labels on toothbrushes for each student so the children can easily find their things, and feel more at home too.
Head Start is a federal program that exists nationwide to provide preschool at no cost to low-income families. There are 10 Head Start programs in South Dakota alone. The Northeast South Dakota Head Start Program, whose headquarters are in Aberdeen along with the Aberdeen preschool, covers 13 counties, 1,500 square miles, and serves about 380 children through centers and home visits. Along with early childhood education, Head Start offers family, health, and nutritional services. NESD Head Start executive director, Juli Schultz, sums up Head Start well by explaining that while their focus is on education, they are much more than a preschool. “We look at the overall picture of every child, where they’re at developmentally and physically, so we can best help them in all capacities and make sure, as the saying goes, they get a ‘head start’ in life.”
Teachers, staff, and parents all play a role in making Head Start what it is for the students. The teachers have early childhood credentials, and they work together to share ideas and stay up to date on curriculum options. Teacher Brandy Cartney says, “I did my student teaching for NSU at Head Start, then became a teacher assistant, and now a teacher. This is my 12th year with the program and I always look forward to it and absolutely love it.” Parents can volunteer in classrooms too, and the policy council includes parent representatives who meet monthly and are involved in hiring and decision-making processes.
This is Juli’s first year as an executive director. She says her job has been made easier because most of the people she works with have been with Head Start in some capacity for a long time, and that it is in all of their hearts to do everything they can for the students while they get them ready for kindergarten. “For the children that come here, we want them to just grow and be confident and comfortable for school. We focus on that school readiness so that they’re set and have the tools they need, and that families have the resources they need to be the best parents, so that they can have a good school experience.”
With 102 students, the Aberdeen Head Start Center is at full enrollment, but due to families moving, they do have spots become available throughout the year. Juli concludes, “We want people to know that we’re here, and that we’re an option for preschool for many that might not otherwise have that option.” // –Jenny Roth