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The free federal preschool program adds classrooms in East County to accommodate a longer day

STAFF PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Two Head Start kids are busy in the rice sensory bin, building and measuring. The two little guys in the background wash their hands after their turn, at a sink sized just right for preschoolers. On a crisp recent Thursday morning, a trio of girls was cutting shapes from lavender construction paper, a small clutch of boys was building with Legos and two youngsters were intently busy at the rice sensory table.

All in a day's work at Head Start.

Like the little ones it serves, the Mt. Hood Community College Head Start program is growing by leaps and bounds.

In the last two years East Multnomah County's Mt. Hood Community College Head Start program has added 13 classrooms to be able to make the day longer for the low-income pre-schoolers it serves.

In addition to adding classrooms, the program is ever changing to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse East Multnomah County population.

The Mt. Hood program covers families in all the school districts in the county east of Portland Public Schools including Reynolds, Gresham-Barlow, Centennial, Parkrose and David Douglas.

The Mt. Hood Community College Head Start programs had 37 classrooms in 2015 and has 50 now, although the number of students it serves has increased only slightly.

STAFF  PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Although cutting up brightly colored paper looks like simple fun, it also develops the fine motor skills needed for things such as writing and using a computer keyboard. "The model used to be three-and-a-half hours per day. There was an a.m. class of 20 kids and a p.m. class of 20 kids," said Pam Corrie, director of the program.

Due to federal mandates, the program was boosted to six-and-a-half hours per day, requiring the extra rented rooms.

"We know our families need the longer day. Our low-income families work and often have to use public transportation. In three-and-a-half hours per day, they drop the kids off and have to come right back and pick them up," she said. A three-and-a-half hour day is still offered for some children who have trouble making it through the longer day.

Educators and multiple studies emphasize the importance of early childhood education.

Angela Hubbs, the director of curriculum and student learning at Centennial School District, said "early learning is critical in developing students' cognitive skills and executive functioning, which sets them up for success in K-12 education. I would love to see more funding for early learning options for children in the Centennial community."

STAFF  PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - This adorable little guy is just one of the more than 30 million children Head Start has served since it was founded in 1965.Six shiny new Head Start classrooms just opened in The 459 Rock Building, the new apartment building that's almost finished near the intersection of Stark and Burnside at 377 S.E. 192nd St. Other classrooms are scattered around the community in churches, schools and on Mt. Hood Community College campuses.

The classrooms at The 459 Rock Building are up and running, but the kitchen, playground and other amenities are not quite finished. Nonetheless, the classrooms are outfitted with rugs, posters, books and other learning tools and the children are settled in their new digs.

Head Start, a federal program under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was founded in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. It has served more than 30 million children in all 50 states and U.S. territories.

Head Start's most well-known program is free pre-school for kids who are from low-income families. Head Start and Early Head Start works to get children ready to be successful in school. The nations's largest preschool program, it is run by local nonprofit agencies, not the federal government.

Corrie says the program is designed "to provide low-income children and their families education, nutrition, social and health services so that children and families are successful when they go on to kindergarten."

"It is our belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life," she added.

STAFF  PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Who doesnt like Legos? The six new 459 Rock Building classrooms have colorful alphabets on the walls, books on the shelves, blocks and learning toys galore. The kids learn by working with sculpting clay and listening to storybooks.

"Children in Head Start learn to work together in a group, develop social, emotional and self- help skills while learning numbers and letters," said Corrie.

But nobody is getting drilled on their ABCs or numbers.

"Children learn to recognize letters and numbers through everyday usage such as recognizing their own name in print and then their friend's name, etc. The same is true for numbers, through playing games, following a recipe "1 cup" of flour, etc.," Corrie explained.

One teacher has taped pictures of shoes on the floor at set intervals so the kids can easily see how to line up to move to another room or the playground. On a recent visit, the kids were busy and the rooms were remarkably quiet and orderly.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs accept children from birth to age 5, in centers, such as The 459 Rock Building, at child care partner locations and in their own homes. Head Start services include early learning, health, and family well-being.

In addition to pre-school, Head Start also does home visits, parent and child care activities, health screenings, meals, transportation and child care-related services.

The number of students Mt. Hood Community College Head Start and Early Head Start serves has grown slightly from 1,117 children in 2015 to 1,149 now. Corrie said there are about 500 who are eligible for Head Start services in the Mt. Hood boundaries who have not enrolled.

STAFF  PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - These two young ladies are setting up the miniature house. It's always difficult to decide what goes where. The make-up of the classes is always changing, reflecting the changes in East Multnomah County.

Corrie said, for example, that the program is enrolling more families who have immigrated from Africa and more African American families who have moved to East Multnomah County as closer-in areas in Portland have become unaffordable.

There is one class of students whose families are from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, Corrie said. That classroom is part of a state-funded program called Preschool Promise, which is also run by Mt. Hood Community College Head Start.

The agency has partnered with the nonprofit Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization to make sure these 20 Burmese families get culturally-appropriate preschool that meets the needs of their children.

Head Start works to have books and playthings that reflect the cultures of the kids in the classrooms. Many classrooms have bilingual teachers or assistants. Head Start has a contract with interpreters that can be reached by phone if the need arises.

The gentle ding-dong of a timer goes off next to the rice table in one of the new classrooms in the 459 Rock Building, signaling to the children at the highly popular activity that it's someone else's turn.

The two boys pull off their protective aprons and help the next two kids into the bright yellow smocks and the two boys happily head off for another activity.

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