Getting children off to the best start can profoundly influence the rest of their lives.
That fact inspired the federal Head Start preschool program and, since the beginning of the calendar year, Sterling children have had an opportunity to take advantage of the successful program.
This fall, the Sterling Head Start preschool is 1 year old and bigger than ever.
"I think Head Start is so important for kids before they go into school because of the social skills they learn," said Director Janyne Craig.
"Kindergarten readiness is something that gives kids confidence."
It was last October that community volunteers put together an advisory committee and selected a site for the preschool. It ended up in a former apartment building on the Sterling Highway near Mile 82.
In November, the committee hired Craig, a former educator with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, to run the facility.
In January, it began serving students for the first time.
The preschool continued with a summer program and reopened for the school year Sept. 10.
It now has 33 children, ages 3 to 5, divided between morning and afternoon classes that meet Tuesdays through Fridays. It is serving 31 families living from near Fred Meyer in Soldotna east to the outskirts of Sterling toward the mountains. Although the preschool does not have a waiting list now, it may have one next year, based on current trends, Craig said.
She stressed that Head Start provides an education, not baby sitting.
"This is definitely not a day care. This is a head start," she said.
The young students learn how to get in line, listen to stories, handle scissors and master basic academics, such as counting and writing their names.
"They learn to say 'please' and 'thank you.' They learn to take turns," Craig said.
The two instructors follow structured lesson plans.
"We use what we call creative play. We try to stretch their imaginations," Craig said.
"We know what concepts we want to teach for that day and how to approach it."
But Head Start does more than teach children. It stresses parental involvement and community partnerships.
The federally funded preschool program serves low-income children and sets aside 10 percent of its space for the disabled.
The staff serve as liaisons and advocates between families and the broader community, helping families with young children get the most out of available services. The program offers home visits, parent education and opportunities to share ideas.
Sterling Head Start students, in their first full year at the facility, got a new playground this fall with assistance from Fred Meyer. Here, student Justin West tries out the slide.
Photo by Janyne Craig
"We try to help the families in every way and any way that we can," Craig said.
One emphasis is on health. Head Start arranges for medical and dental screenings for its students, promotes healthy habits and good nutrition and helps its families get care.
Another asset that has helped the new preschool is its bus. Most of its families rely on the service, which picks up youngsters along the highway and provides transportation to and from the preschool.
In addition to the two teachers, the nine-member staff includes two classroom aides, one child advocate, one family advocate, one person who combines bus driving and maintenance duties, a kitchen aide and a cook Craig called the best in the world.
The preschool also has access to visiting specialists from the Rural Alaska Community Action Program Inc. (RurAL CAP), its sponsor.
RurAL CAP is a private, statewide, nonprofit corporation that promotes quality of life improvements for low-income Alaskans. RurAL CAP's Child Development Division handles funding arrangements and oversees the Sterling program's operation. It also sponsors the Head Start programs in Homer and Seward.
Other Head Start programs on the peninsula are sponsored by Native organizations. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe sponsors the Kenaitze Cuya Qyut'anen Head Start in Kenai, and Chugachmiut sponsors Head Start projects in Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek.
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