MERCED -- There are 1,260 youngsters enrolled in Merced County's Head Start programs. But the number of people learning from the program is considerably larger -- and much older.
Linda Kaercher, Head Start director, said full-day classes started in July and part-time sessions resumed the third week of August. There are 17 Head Start sites throughout the county, with 237 teachers and support staff.
The Merced County Office of Education took over the program seven years ago from the county Community Action Agency, and the program's $10 million budget has remained stable along with enrollment figures.
Two hundred of the participants are in Early Head Start, for youngsters up to 3 years old. Regular Head Start students are up to 5 years old. Ten percent of those served by Head Start must be children with special needs.
Parents figure prominently in the Head Start equation.
Assistant Director Sol Ruiz also serves as family support services manager and directs 30 support-services coordinators who work with families directly. Each support-services worker has a caseload of 45 children and their families.
Ruiz said the coordinators work with parents to make sure children keep up with medical checkups, help them get to school and sometimes ensure that they have food and their utilities are paid.
These coordinators also can do blood-pressure, vision and hearing screenings, and are responsible for connecting families with outside services to address special needs.
Gaye Riggs, retiring assistant superintendent for early education with MCOE, said Head Start is one of the remaining parts of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" program, which began in 1965. Merced County was one of the first to join, establishing a center in the Dos Palos area.
"Head Start is the premier early childhood education program in the United States," Riggs said. "We work with whole families, and we are obligated to be responsive and meet needs of the community. We never make changes without gathering data in a community."
Kaercher said multiple research studies show that children do much better when they are able to attend preschool. By enrolling in Early Head Start, these youngsters will be better prepared to keep up with increasingly-rigorous kindergarten programs.
Head Start uses curriculum developed by the textbook company Houghton Mifflin. It includes developmentally appropriate activities addressing areas of general knowledge, intellect and problem-solving abilities, Kaercher said.
Physical skills, social and emotional development as well as language and math are all part of the Head Start program.
"We offer comprehensive services and support families in all areas of a child's health and well-being," Kaercher said.
Christie Hendricks, incoming MCOE assistant superintendent of early education, stressed the family aspect of Head Start.
"What's unique about the Head Start mission is really to educate the entire family and work with parents to help them support their children's education and help them become successful throughout their educational career," Hendricks said.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 385-2407.