Reprieve for Head Start

Social media was abuzz recently with the news of the impending closure of the Head Start Oakhurst site. Word of mouth quickly spread, and worried parents of both current and past students passionately expressed concerns over the negative impact this inevitably would have on eligible children and their families.

However, rather than voting to close the site at last week’s Community Action Partnership of Madera County meeting, the Board of Directors made a decision to take a wait-and-see approach, temporarily laying-to-rest parental concerns.

“It was decided to keep the Oakhurst site open for another year,” Maritza Gomez, Madera Head Start director said, “and then to re-evaluate for recruitment and attendance.”

What this means is that Head Start, which runs September through May, will open, as usual, in September 2016 for the coming school year. During those months, the board will be kept apprised of the enrollment and waiting list numbers.

Oakhurst has an enrollment capacity of 15 children, however, they have been struggling to reach and maintain that number for the past three years.

Even though there was speculation that the Oakhurst site was closing because teachers in Madera wanted pay raises and a five-day work week, Gomez insists that is not the case.

“That is misinformation,” Gomez said. “The sole reason closure was considered was due to low enrollment.”

“We’re relieved the Oakhurst site is staying open,” Gomez added. “We really don’t want to close any sites. We know Head Start is a good program, but we are required to follow enrollment regulations. If one site has under-enrollment, it jeopardizes the entire program because Head Start is seen as a whole, not as individual sites.”

Also relieved are parents of current and future Head Start students.

Trisha Poffenberger and Ahsley Ratzlaff have children currently enrolled in the program, and were hopeful that their younger children would also be able to benefit from what Head Start offers.

“Tayley, who will be 4 in April, started Head Start with major speech delays,” Poffenberger explained. “She has come so far. She wouldn’t talk to anyone when she started here, and now she socializes with children ... never stops talking, even during a movie.”

While Tayley heads to kindergarten this fall, her younger brother, Maxon, almost 3, will begin Head Start.

“We’re not eligible for transitional kindergarten, there’s a waiting list at the Sierra Children’s Center on the OES campus, and private pay is out of the question,” Poffenberger said.

Her assessment summed it up for friend, Ashley Ratzlaff, who falls under similar circumstances. Her daughter, Amelia, soon to be 4, wouldn’t be able to return to Head Start next year had the program closed, and this “would have left me with two children with no where to go. There really are no other options for me.” Ratzlaff also plans on enrolling her son, Aiden, nearly 3, in the fall program.

Amanda Woodworth is all too aware of the positive and lasting impact the program can have. Her boys, Christopher and Joshua, now 7 and 5, attended Head Start, and while both had similar experiences, for Christopher, it was life-altering.

“Chris has high-functioning Autism with Asperger’s, had a hard time in social situations and making friends,” Woodworth explained. “His going to Head Start not only jump-started his education, but gave him the social skills and confidence he needed to begin kindergarten. He wouldn’t have progressed as well as he has, if not for Head Start.”

“Both boys now attend OES, and are doing great,” she continued. “Head Start gave my kids such a good start, and I know it does the same for other kids in the community. It’s clean, the program is well-structured, the teachers are amazing ... the kids aren’t just there to play ... they’re learning colors, numbers, and the skills needed to prepare them for kindergarten. Head Start is a fitting name - it really does give these kids a head start.”

“I know parents up there want to advocate to keep this program open, but we also need their help in spreading the word about the services we provide,” Gomez said. “They need to refer families to the center, so that we can keep our enrollment numbers up ... so that we don’t have to face this situation again.”

Madera/Mariposa Regional Head Start provides early education and other services to low-income children and families in Madera, Mariposa, Chowchilla, Fairmead, Oakhurst, and North Fork. Part-day and full-day services are provided to more than 350 children ages three to five at these sites.