Merced County Head Start received an $11 million annual grant for the next five years – the largest amount ever obtained in federal funding, officials announced Wednesday.
The funds will help more than 1,200 Merced County children enrolled in the Head Start program, which provides social development programs, nutritional education and vision, dental and health care.
The money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also will help fund child development services, equipment and salaries of 230 staff members, said Merced County Head Start director Linda Kaercher.
The county’s Head Start program, now in its 50th year, is designed for families living below the poverty level, Kaercher said. Most are referred to one of the 16 Head Start centers by community partners and various county agencies.
“Our children come to us facing a lot of challenges,” Kaercher said. “The families are struggling to make ends meet and to put nutritional food on the table. For many of them, it’s their first experience outside the home.”
The program caters to children up to age 5, including those with disabilities. Studies have shown that Head Start programs help children succeed by focusing on educational development from an early age.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who visited the Head Start center on G Street in Merced on Wednesday, said the grant is an example of taxpayer dollars returning to the area to improve childrens’ lives.
“Funds like this grant allow Head Start not only to provide access to early education, but to focus on the beginning of a child’s entire educational development,” Costa said. “That’s the whole purpose for early childhood education.”
Merced County Head Start’s achievements were recognized at the nation’s capital, Costa said, resulting in the program not having to compete with others for federal dollars.
“We were told that Merced County Head Start has done such a great job that it did not have to compete with other Head Starts to get into this new five-year funding cycle,” Costa said. “That’s pretty significant, when you think about it. In other words, their reputation of the good work that they do here is understood back in Washington, D.C.”
Criteria considered when deciding whether the county Head Start program would be exempt from competing for funding include class scores, performance measures and meeting compliance standards.
With his granddaughter by his side, Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steve Gomes said Wednesday the Head Start program helps to set children up for success. The Merced County Office of Education has administered the program since 2005.
“We know that those students have higher graduation rates as a group and they’re less likely to go to prison, statistically,” Gomes said. “There are lower incarceration rates among those groups, and fewer referrals for mental health and special education services.