COVE Comminqu?e: Providing a Head Start

Sarah Branz

Throughout my time working with the COVE over the past three years, some of my most memorable experiences have been spent volunteering in the classroom at Madison Head Start. The following is an excerpt from a longer piece that highlights an amazingly important place that is virtu­ally unknown to students, even though it is situated only ten minutes away from campus:

Two school buses sit in the parking lot of the United Methodist Church, each oddly stunted, only half the size of what one would expect. A bright orange cone is placed a foot from each bus, and only as a teacher taps on the glass does the driver pull open the door and release the one-by-one stream of pre-schoolers. As the door slides open, the kids begin their day with the sight of the open arms of Karyn, the classroom’s head teacher. Karyn, a middle-aged woman with children of her own, is adorned in her lilac button-up shirt and black pants that may be labeled as ‘dress clothes,’ but are baggy and faded enough to make them seem ready for play. As each child nears the edge of the bus’s stairs, Karyn and her aides wait for the ‘look both ways’ before lending the much-needed hand to help with the hop to the pavement. There are never any cars in this desolate parking lot, but that is no matter. The children begin to learn – always look both ways before crossing the street – before even entering the Head Start classroom. At this stage in their already disadvantaged lives, it’s not just about training in letters and numbers.

The toddlers file into the classroom and have learned to head straight for their individualized cubby, each labeled with their name, accompanied by a picture of an alliterated animal – Emily elephant, Landon lion and Skye seal. Head Start edu­cates over 22 million children in this country that are living below the federal poverty level – and that number only covers those children the program can reach. Perhaps most impor­tantly, the program provides positive role models at school for these kids who may not otherwise have them. The first major task of the day is taking off coats and boots, checking the backpack for parents’ letters for Karyn and putting on indoor shoes. Today, Haylee’s new shirt is stealing the show. Not only does it sport an almost life-size image of Hannah Montana’s face, but it actually sings! The children gather around and stand with wide eyes as Haylee continuously presses the small sound box and proudly entertains her classmates. Landon, however, misses the show in order to go borrow from the shoe box; he had just opened his backpack to find only one of his Velcro sneakers.

The fifteen kids in the class all find a seat on the colorful alphabet carpet as the day begins with attendance. Upon hearing their names called, the children scurry one-by-one over to Karyn and grab the monkey with their name written across the stomach. Then, using all the motor skills they can muster, they attempt to clip the monkey onto the classroom vine. Next comes the assignment of the day’s jobs – teacher’s helper, lunch table setters, line leader and weather­person. The teaching assistant holds up a pencil-shaped piece of laminated construction paper, announcing that the teach­er’s helper’s name is written across it. “Whose name begins with an T?” she asks, pointing to the first letter. Five hands shoot in the air, but mostly just out of excitement. In the very corner of the carpet, however, an arm slides up slowly, with a look of quiet confidence on the accompanying face. Tyler knows exactly what his name looks like.

In conversation with Karyn, she tells me: “Yes, you begin to harden to some things. You have to know to expect the unexpected. After listening to an exasperated three-year-old tell you that ‘Daddy didn’t do the taxes … so Mommy can’t get a job … and without Mommy having a job …we can’t have dinner’, it’s only natural to want to fix it all. How can a toddler be expected to focus on spelling C-A-T when she’s worried about not having dinner, or what new man will be spending the night at her house today? Some things, however, never get easier. Hearing of a child getting abused … that will never get easier.”

These kids are not receiving a head start; instead, it’s just a proper start. Even if a child finishes the year with little to no improvements in spelling or counting, they will each leave with a positive educational experience under their tot-sized belts, a lasting image of a true role model. “I have to remem­ber I can’t save the world,” Karyn adds. “I just have to think: Did I do the best I could?”

Contact Sarah Branz at [email protected]