An Orangeburg-based community action agency wants the community to know that its early-learning program works and remains available for future generations of America's most at-risk children who require specialized help in order to prepare for kindergarten and beyond.
Calvin Wright, executive director of the Orangeburg-Calhoun-Bamberg-Allendale Community Action Agency Inc., said the program has undergone changes both in its eligibility requirements and academic program features as it continues to create ways to better serve the community.
The Head Start Program serves 704 children ages 3 to 4, including those with disabilities, at 10 centers in Orangeburg, Bamberg, Calhoun and Allendale counties and is directly funded through the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's Administration on Children, Youth and Families.
The OCAB-Denmark Early Head Start Center for children up to age 3 opened in 2012 and currently serves 45.
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“What we really want is to try to get people to take advantage of Head Start. The worst thing we can do is have opportunities available and we not avail ourselves of them. Head Start is a free program. You spend absolutely not one penny out of your pocket. Transportation is provided from curbside to school door and back,” Wright said.
The executive director added, “For those who worry about not being income eligible for Head Start, the program has relaxed its income requirements. So you can actually be over income up to 130 percent of the poverty guideline and still be eligible.
“It had previously been 100 percent, but it’ll be 130 percent and we want folk to apply. Up to 35 percent of our enrollment can be over income if certain criteria is met by OCAB. So that’s what we want people to know. Don’t just assume that your children aren’t eligible for Head Start. Make that application and then let us make that determination.”
OCAB opened its $6 million, 31,000-square-foot Head Start Center in 2015. The new center houses 3- and 4-year-olds who had been using the old North Road school, Brookdale Elementary, and Bethune-Bowman Elementary. The facility features 16 classrooms, audio- and visual-based technology, along with cafeteria, medical, dental and gymnasium space.
A computer lab, a library and a green space — where students can participate in gardening — are among its other amenities.
Necole Stroman, director of the OCAB Head Start and Early Head Start programs, said several upgrades have been made to the facility since its opening.
“We have classrooms equipped with smart boards, where the children are able to engage in several different modalities of learning. We’ve also hired a full-time nurse who actually coordinates health services for the children in the Head Start program,” she said.
A Fitness on Demand initiative has also been implemented to enhance physical activity opportunities.
“We are required by USDA to incorporate more physical fitness activities to help decrease obesity in the children. So we have that set up in our multipurpose room, where would also like to invite families to see what appropriate exercises should be done with children and to help teach them their children healthy eating habits,” Stroman said.
Wright said Head Start also participates in USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which provides increased access to foods grown from local farmers.
“We applied for those funds to actually purchase fresh fruits and vegetables (from local farmers) to feed the kids. And it’s more to it than that. Children will learn that corn doesn’t come in a can, but they actually learn how food is grown. It helps the local economy, too,” Wright said, noting that children actually participate in food preparation by planting seeds and watching fruits and vegetables grow in their classrooms.
Stroman said the state Department of Health and Environmental Control has implemented a nutrition initiative within the Head Start program. Children are given nutrition lessons and activities, some of which are sent home to parents.
“We also have a certified dietician and nutritionist that approves all of our menus so that they are aligned with the USDA requirements and good healthy eating patterns,” she said.
Stroman said the Head Start program is also partnering with the state DHEC’s WIC (Women, Infants and Children) office to have mobile units come out to its sites to make sure parents’ WIC certifications stay up to date.
While the Head Start program has not yet hired a librarian to staff its media center, Stroman said, “We are going to engage the children in our computer lab that’s in the media center.”
“The teachers will have library activities with their children and children from our other centers will be able to come use the media center as well as they develop a love of reading. We want parents to come in, and we’re looking for volunteers to help really bring that media center to life,” the Head Start director said.
The Head Start program has also incorporated a parent curriculum for them to be engaged in every facet of their child’s learning.
“We’re actually required to ensure that parents also have a family service coordinator assigned to them as the go-to person for any of the parents’ concerns. Our ultimate goal is to help parents become self-sufficient,” Stroman said. “If they have certain goals for their children, the family service coordinator helps to be the mediator between families and the teachers.”
A parent-family-community engagement calendar, which includes male-involvement activities, has also been established since the new center’s opening in 2015.
“We are working hard,” Stroman said, “but I don’t think the story is told enough so that people in the community know exactly what we do and how well we’ve been doing it for so long.
“We just really keep adding dimensions that will really help the whole child.”
The Head Start program can take applications up to the very last day of the program year. Individuals can apply for the program at Head Start offices in Allendale, 252 Marion St., at 803-584-4026; Bamberg, 211 Zeigler St., at 803-245-5521; Denmark, 80 Cedar St., at 803-793-4689; Neeses, 701 Rice St., at 803-247-4455; St. Matthews, 304 Agnes St., at 803-874-3588, or at the main Orangeburg site at 1822 Joe S. Jeffords Highway at 803-536-1027. Spanish language assistance is also available.
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