Teacher Diane Bernard helps Kalani Antonio, X-Zandria Challans and Sophie Kuykendall color with chalk during a recess at Kenaitze Cuya Qyut'anen Head Start earlier this month. The Kenai school is celebrating its 10th class this fall.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Charmaine Lundy doesn’t mince words explaining why she and her fellow staff members are so passionate about their jobs working for a Head Start preschool program.
“Even though I was a good, successful elementary teacher I taught kids, not classes the most important job is here. If the social and emotional isn’t pulled together, kids will not be successful in public education so this is important,” Lundy said.
With that statement, Lundy summed up what the Kenaitze Cuya Qyut’anen Head Start program has been striving for as it prepares its 10th class of preschoolers for kindergarten.
Head Start is a 40-year-old federal program for preschool-age children with the goal of increasing school-readiness of young children in low-income families.
What makes the Kenaitze Cuya Qyut’anen program special the way in which it approaches that goal, by working with the entire family unit to ensure children are ready to learn when they reach kindergarten.
“Our whole premise has been holistic from the start. We work with the family and children together,” said Debbie Shuey, the program’s director.
To do that, Shuey said, the program has relied on the support of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, and has forged relationships with other organizations throughout the community. Through the Head Start family partners, families can make connections they need to do anything from furthering an education to learning how to winterize the family car.
“Part of the program is about families, and connecting families with resources,” said Janet Shapley, a family partner. “My job is to work with families, and to help them set goals for their families.”
Connecting with the whole family and getting parents involved with their children’s development is what creates the conditions necessary for children to become emotionally and socially ready to enter school.
“It’s real basic,” Shuey said. “We’re working with the social and emotional, and strengthening families. We work with them to become advocates for their children.”
In the classroom, the 57 children in the program are given a safe and stable environment in which to develop the skills they need to be successful kindergartners, things like how to stand in line, how to sit and listen to a teacher, and how to hold a book.
“The safe environment allows them to develop,” said Lundy, one of the teachers on the staff. “They know they’re safe, they’re respected. Appropriate guidelines and boundaries are set, they have consistency, and they get encouragement to explore.”
Lundy said children in the program are well prepared when they move on to a kindergarten classroom.
“The big comment is, ‘I wish there were more Head Starts on the peninsula,’” said Diane Bernard, also a teacher in the program.
There also is a cultural component to the curriculum, and students have been learning the beginnings of the Dena’ina language. Lundy said students can say things like “Excuse me,” and have learned a weather song, which they sometimes break into spontaneously while waiting for the bus.
“That’s a beautiful things to see,” Lundy said.
The program services both Native and non-Native students from Nikiski to Kasilof. Shuey said the cultural component is included at Kenaitze Cuya Qyut’anen Head Start because the program falls under the American Indian branch of the federal program.
“The strength of our program is the cultural component and giving that foundation to our students,” Shuey said.
Shuey said the program is constantly evolving as staff evaluate their methods and results, and the current role of the program is vastly expanded since it first opened its doors. Support for the program also has increased since the first group of preschoolers came through.
“It’s grown tremendously. When we first started, I don’t remember that we offered as many things to connect as we do now,” Shapley said.
“We didn’t have the collaboration,” Shuey said.
One big change this year is the addition of an after-school program, which will allow students to stay involved with Head Start through second grade. The program will be funded by an Alaska Native education grant.
“We’re trying to make it more than two years, once we have the connection,” Shuey said.
One thing that hasn’t changed since day one, Shuey said, is the dedication of the staff, many of whom have been involved in the program for several years.
“I think one of the special things about this particular Head Start is the of growth they offer families, they also offer staff,” said Carrie Lee Steiner, a tutor with the program.
Steiner said staff members are offered numerous professional and personal development opportunities, and are encouraged to work in different capacities within the program.
“Within the building, many of us have changed positions, so we’re encouraged to seek other areas that we want to be in,” said Steiner, who initially joined the staff as a teacher. “All of us have had a chance to grow while we’ve been here.”
That flexibility has led to very low staff turnover and contributed to the program’s stable environment.
“We really are connected to our jobs and to our children and our families,” Steiner said.
The program hosted its first alumni reunion earlier this month, and Shuey said she was excited to how the connections made with families have blossomed. She said she plans to make alumni gatherings a regular occurrence to continue to foster connections between the program and the families its serves.
“It really is exciting. We’ve come so far, and become an integral part of the community that’s the greatest thing,” Shuey said. “... It’s exciting to see everybody come together to support each other, which is a great thing about this community. Not all communities work well together.”
Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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