A fresh start for Head Start?

Formerly the site for Head Start, Grant County Child Center in Canyon City continues to welcome children for day care and preschool. Program director and coordinator Donna Johnston (above) says the center is on the rebound from difficult years. Community support is welcome. The Eagle/DAVID CARKHUFF

JOHN DAY - Children living in poverty need a central location to attend Head Start preschool in Grant County, argues a local task force.

That makes John Day an attractive location for the 37-year-old federal program to take up residence. Head Start aims to help preschool children of low-income families.

On Wednesday, Dec. 11, the task force will make its case to Cathy Wamsley, executive director of Umatilla-Morrow Head Start Inc. Wamsley's office oversees Head Start programs in Grant County and six other counties.

Wamsley said she is willing to listen during a meeting with the task force.

"My feeling, of course, is I want to do whatever the communities in Grant County want," she said.

What the communities want boils down to three goals.

First, the task force wants to see Head Start centralized in John Day to better serve children from places like Mt. Vernon, which are a 21-mile drive from the existing Head Start operation in Prairie City. Second, members of the task force want to maintain the preschool at Prairie City School, especially if Head Start moves out to relocate to John Day. Third, the task force hopes to better identify the numbers of low-income children who qualify for Head Start because a current enrollment of 18 children seems suspiciously low to task force members.

"We're convinced that there are impoverished kids throughout the county who are not being served, " said Mark Burrows, principal at Humbolt Elementary School in Canyon City and chairman of the local task force.

Dana Brooks, director of the Grant County Commission on Children and Families, a funding partner for Head Start, agreed, "There are a lot of students who are outside that radar that aren't being served."

Each goal poses a challenge, however. Based on the recent history of Head Start in Grant County, long distances and limited funding are not easily overcome.

Prior to this school year, the Head Start program operated out of the struggling Grant County Child Center (better known as Kiddie Kastle) in Canyon City, while maintaining its second site in Prairie City.

"We just never could maintain the funded enrollment, so we went to one classroom," Wamsley explained.

As a result of this decision, the program exited Kiddie Kastle and concentrated its efforts at Prairie City School. A key reason for this decision: Prairie City School District No. 4 offered space at no cost; Head Start aid for its site at Kiddie Kastle.

However, the centralization at Prairie City School posed its own problems. Principal Kevin Purnell told the commission on children and families that Head Start's enrollment standards, being income-driven, caused children to be turned away from the Prairie City preschool. Meanwhile, if Head Start leaves Prairie City, the school could be forced to close its preschool for lack of funding.

"I want to still make sure if we move it ... that Prairie City kids get served," Wamsley said.

As for the assertion that Head Start fails to serve all eligible children, Wamsley said eligibility is based on income with some exceptions for children with disabilities. However, she added that her office recently received updated Census information from the Oregon Department of Education estimating that 45-50 children are eligible in Grant County.

"It is possible that we may need to do a better job of recruitment," she conceded.

But increased eligibility and awareness may not increase use because tremendous distances confront many families in Grant County. Head Start lacks the funding to furnish transportation to outlying areas, a problem common throughout the region (for example, Head Start received funding from the Umatilla County Commission on Children and Families for a traveling preschool in order to serve Pilot Rock; otherwise, this community south of Pendleton would have gone without service; a similar arrangement once was used for Long Creek, Wamsley said).

Ideas of expanding Head Start in Grant County may be short-lived. The ambition of providing two sites to meet the 50-child need - perhaps by keeping the preschool open in Prairie City and instituting a second one in John Day - may fall by the wayside if voters deny a Jan. 28 income tax increase, Wamsley cautioned.

"Financially we may not be able to keep two centers open," she warned.

For more information

Members of the Grant County Head Start task force include Bob Batty, Jim Bowler, Newell Cleaver, Mark Lesniak, Rick Minster, Scott Myers, Kevin Purnell and Paul Smith. Chairman is Mark Burrows. Umatilla-Morrow Head Start Inc., located in Hermiston, can be contacted at (541) 564-6878.

Kiddie Kastle stages comeback for kids

Although no longer the host site for Head Start, Grant County Child Center located at 249 N. Humbolt, Canyon City, welcomes children for day care and preschool. All children between the ages of 3 and 10 are welcome, and drop-ins are accepted. Program director and coordinator Donna Johnston reports that the center is building enrollment following several difficult years. Teacher Darla Long brings 15 years of prekindergarten experience with an early childhood endorsement. For more information, call the center at 575-0166.

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