MOUNT VERNON — A shortage in Knox County has made it difficult for parents to find quality child care programs. It’s become necessary to apply as early as possible to eliminate being placed on a waiting list or missing out entirely on programs such as Knox County Head Start.
Head Start Executive Director Peg Tazewell and Enrollment Coordinator Jo Ann Clark recommend that parents apply as early as possible. On a countywide basis, they said, Early Head Start, with the biggest need, had a whopping size waiting list this past year of 108.
Seventy of those on the countywide Early Head Start waiting list had income at 100 percent or below federal poverty guidelines, while another 38 were prepared to pay for services ranging from $168 weekly at the main New Hope Early Learning Center site in Mount Vernon, to $262 weekly for infant care at the Gambier site. The Gambier site partners with Kenyon College.
There are many factors to consider when applying for Head Start, Tazewell said. One is that it is a process with several steps, another reason to start as early as possible. Tax forms are required for working parents, and proof of income for others. Parents who apply to Head Start and Early Head Start do so in person, and there is a required in-person interview. Families of four with an annual income of $25,100 or less meet federal poverty guidelines.
A child must turn 3 years old by Aug. 1 of this year to qualify for Head Start programs this coming fall. Once accepted, the child can remain in Head Start two years, through age 5. Another factor to consider is that pre-enrollment starts first for returning children, one more reason to apply at first opportunity if one’s child is not already in Head Start, Tazewell said.
Due to childcare shortages in Knox County, being placed on a Head Start or Early Head Start waiting list can mean being shut out of the program due to a dearth of available space, Tazewell and Clark acknowledged. Tazewell said she knows what those consequences can mean for a child — as Head Starts adheres to an early childhood learning philosophy from Parents as Teachers, a St. Louis-based program. While a child may not have much socialization opportunity if closed out of a local preschool program, a parent can nonetheless be a child’s most important early educator as Parents as Teachers urges, Tazewell said.
Parents as Teachers emphasizes research determining that a child’s brain develops fastest from ages 0 to 3, and then on to age 5. More than 80 percent of a child’s inquisitiveness and love of learning occurs at these earliest ages. PAT also emphasizes that with appropriate effort, nearly any parent is highly capable of engaging with their child in reading, counting, letter recognition, playtime, craft project making and other activities.
Tazewell said there are three other childcare preschools in Knox County, some of which receive state assistance including the Knox County Educational Services Center. But the county ESC, which works with public schools to provide preschool, also has waiting lists, she noted. A message left for ESC was not returned.
There are several Head Start/Early Head Start program locations in Knox County. Tazewell and Clark work at county Head Start headquarters on Upper Gilchrist Road, the New Hope Early Learning Center, which offers half-day and full-day programs. There is also a second Head Start location in Mount Vernon, North Gate, offering the same programs.
Traditional Head Start classrooms offer a half-day (3.5 hours), four days a week program during the school year, from August/September through May. Centerburg and Danville fit this model, operating half-day Head Start preschools. Fredericktown is a bit different, offering a six-hour program.
“We’re kind of complicated,” Tazewell said. “Because we have so many parents who work, some of our Head Start classrooms operate 12 months a year, five days a week.”
The main site on Upper Gilchrist Road, for example, is open 11 hours per day, and it is typical for working parents to have their children receive services for 8 to 10 hours per day, she added.
A small number of parents — about 10 percent — are allowed to exceed federal poverty guidelines and can qualify for Early Head Start childcare, but not preschool (Head Start). Each applicant for either program receives a score based on need, Clark said. The more hardships endured as an adult parent — such as being a single mother with very low income — the higher the score. Meeting the qualification of a single parent at or below the federal poverty guidelines means an annual income of $12,800 or less.
New rules are encouraging Head Start to expand all programs from 3.5 to 6 hours per day, Tazewell said, “but if they don’t provide the funding we don’t have to do it because of course it’s more expensive. We just wrote a grant to move (all of) our program from a half-day to a six-hour day, but that would not be until August.”
Children who do not get into Head Start do have other childcare and preschool options, but if similarly closed out of those, it can mean a long wait — close to a year — for the next opportunity to enter a program. Tazewell said ideally, American society would prioritize early child brain development from birth onward. But reality paints a different picture.
“First of all, there’s no guarantee in the United States that a child would have a preschool slot, nor is there such a guarantee in the state of Ohio,” Tazewell said. “It is not funded. I wished we lived in a world that gave this guarantee (of preschool funding for every child).”
Knox County Head Start is funded for 181 preschool slots (Head Start), Tazewell said. There were 30 parents who completed the pre-enrollment process but found slots unavailable, while another 120 parents expressed interest but did not complete the process.
Tazewell estimated that the Knox County Educational Service Center and its school-affiliated preschools serve about 200 students. ESC preschools allow adults to have income of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, but they must pay for services on a sliding scale. Other preschool options are private businesses as well as Faith Lutheran Christian Preschool in Mount Vernon. Knox County Head Start also offers a home-based program.
“It’s impossible to make money serving babies,” Tazewell said, “unless you charge more. I have a friend in Maryland who owns a childcare center and he charges $28,000 a year for a baby to be in care. And I bet he makes money. But you can’t make money on what the state reimburses us for subsidized families. So for us, we are able to do what we do because we are combining our Early Head Start dollars with state Head Start dollars.”