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East County Head Start waiting list gets longer

The Mt. Hood Community College Head Start program has the longest waiting list in Multnomah County and is always looking for ways to serve more kids.

There are 500 youngsters waiting for Early Head Start services in East County and 400 waiting for regular Head Start.

“The waiting list for Early Head Start just keeps getting longer,” said Susan Brady, executive director of MHCC Head Start.

The problem, of course, is money. Head Start can only expand by winning new funding grants, usually federal or state grants.

“The only way to expand is new funding opportunities. We apply for these whenever they come up,” Brady said.

Another barrier to expansion is finding adequate locations.

“We’d really like to get more space,” Brady said. Public schools have gotten so overcrowded that Head Start hasn’t been able to increase its presence in schools for years, she said. Many other spaces, such as churches, don’t meet Head Start requirements.

Mt. Hood Community College Head Start has 11 sites in East County and serves about 1,160 children. About 1,000 of these are Head Start students aged 3 to 5. Most attend classes at a site 3.5 hours per day, four days per week.

The rest are infants and toddlers in Early Head Start and they are served in a variety of settings.

Head Start, a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides early childhood education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income preschoolers and their families.

Head Start is one effort to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.

To be eligible for Head Start a family must be at the federal poverty level, which is $24,250 for a family of four.

Head Start has been around since 1965. It was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

Head Start students “go outside, read books, do science. Children learn through play,” Brady said. But she adds that Head Start is doing more “direct instruction” to prepare children for the increased rigor seeping down to kindergarten.

And, with the new emphasis on evaluating and testing students at all levels of education, Head Start also has started doing academic readiness assessment on each child.

MHCC Head Start teachers evaluate each child’s progress and enter it on an iPad, Brady said. The children are evaluated on things such as gross and fine motor skills, language, literacy and math.

The East County Head Start student population has changed too. Attendees are becoming more diverse than in years past.

About 45 percent of the MHCC Head Start families speak Spanish at home and another nine or 10 languages are also represented, Brady said.

In the last three years the number of homeless families have “gone way up,” she said. “Is that because we’re counting better or has the number actually gone up that much?” she wonders aloud. “But whatever the reason, those children are at terrible risk.”

The emphasis on early childhood education has grown nationwide. Studies show that the earlier students begin fairly structured education, the better off they will be academically throughout their school careers.

Oregon is funding all-day kindergarten starting in the 2015-16 school year.

“I want every child to go to kindergarten and be successful,” Brady said.

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