Early childhood development programs have been shown to be an important first step in the education of preschool children, and Montevideo is one of several communities in the area to have access to a program known as Head Start. Head Start, and Early Head Start are state and federally funded programs that exist to assist families and children who fall under poverty guidelines, or who qualify, regardless of income, if homeless, in foster care, or if anyone in the family living in the household is on Social Security Income (SSI) or TANF (MFIP).

Early childhood development programs have been shown to be an important first step in the education of preschool children, and Montevideo is one of several communities in the area to have access to a program known as Head Start. Head Start, and Early Head Start are state and federally funded programs that exist to assist families and children who fall under poverty guidelines, or who qualify, regardless of income, if homeless, in foster care, or if anyone in the family living in the household is on Social Security Income (SSI) or TANF (MFIP).

According to Rachel Schlief, director of the program, Head Start currently provides weekly in-home visits, or four-day per week center programming.

“The Early Head Start home-based program serves pregnant mothers and children up to the age of three,” said Schlief. “Our center-based programs are for three to five year olds, and they follow a research-based school curriculum. The children can participate in a full-day or half-day program depending upon which site they are enrolled in, and we work with the whole family of the enrolled child in goal setting and finding resources.”

The program has stand-alone classrooms located in the Canby, Granite Falls, and Montevideo School Districts. The districts work together to enroll children and share funding to keep the program going within the different areas. According to Schlief, the program is currently active in five different counties, and depending on the area, it’s either Head Start only or it’s Collaborative.

“In Monte it’s a Head Start Only, so we don’t have any district-funded or parent-paid children in those classrooms,” explained Shlief. “Head Start funds the whole thing. In Lac qui Parle and the Appleton/Madison classroom, those would be a partnership. There, the district pays for some of the kids through state grants. There might be some additional private parent-pay, and then there’s Head Start Kids. So we work more of a community preschool versus just a Head Start preschool.”

Appleton, Benson, Clinton, Madison, and KMS run Collaborative Head Start programs, and Canby, Granite Falls, and Montevideo run Head Start Only programs The Montevideo Head Start program is located in the Sanford Center, and there are around 40 kids enrolled locally. Altogether, there are about 193 kids enrolled.

“There are 175 preschool center-based slots, and 18 Early Head Start home-based slots,” said Schlief. “There are also 11 office staff, five Family Advocates, two Home Visitors, 11 teachers, 14 Assistant Teachers, and five English Language Support Staff. In addition we have staff working in the Prairie Five CAC Agency that do some of the administrative and fiscal duties for the Head Start and Early Head Start program.”

Schlief went on to explain that their center-based programming is much like any other preschool setting.

“There is a daily schedule that includes time for literacy, mathematic, social, cognitive, and fine and gross motor activities. We are the first preschool setting for many of the children, and to instill a love for learning and working together with their peers and other adults are major components of our programs.

“Within our home based program,” she continued, “the Home Visitors provide support to the families and help the parents be their child’s first and foremost important teacher.”

According to Schlief, most people aren’t usually aware of all the components that go into making Head Start such an important and integral program. And, like every other school, the COVID-19 pandemic made things very fluid with the program and presented challenges that needed to be overcome.

“This summer, as soon as COVID basically happened, we sent deliveries and materials to the families, and continued to do that throughout the summer for the kids that were going into kindergarten. Typically children, once they’re five, they go into kindergarten. We’re able to keep them back once in awhile, and we reached out to those families to see if they wanted to have one more year of preschool if they felt their children weren’t ready. That’s something we did that we don’t usually try to promote. But they are ready!” she said.

Schlief elaborated, stating that some of the children are in their classrooms for three years, starting when they are three years old.

“They can start anytime in the school year once they turn three. So even if they turn three in December, we’ll still take them into our classrooms. We try to get them in as soon as we can, because the best place for them is typically in a program,” Schlief said.

Schlief believes Head Start is very important for early development, because social and emotional understanding is one of the big things they work on with the children.

“If they can’t play well with others, they can’t learn,” she said. “Learning how to work with adults and handle their emotions is kind of a big thing, because once they’re able to do that, then they can actually concentrate and learn.”

According to Schlief, the kids learn through play.

“But, we are very purposeful in looking at the data and the childrens’ assessments. We look at that, and we cater different lessons to help the children with their different needs. Our teachers have a really big job!” said Schlief.

The biggest challenge, Schlief said, is that they deal with multiple districts, and every district is different.

“It strengthens the relationships between districts because we really have to talk about what we need, and how to be within each other’s guidelines, too.”

Typically, each district chooses when to start their school year. This year, the Head Start school year is set to start on Sept. 8 for all districts.

“There are a few starting earlier, and we were going to start earlier, but then the districts pushed back a week and we needed to get the meals and transportation for the kids sorted out before then,” Schlief explained.

The biggest change this year, according to Schlief, is the number of children currently enrolled.

“With the uncertainty of programming and parent concerns, we don’t have as many enrolled now as we usually do in August. Other changes are the number of children we can serve in the classroom at one time. We have also been using the guidelines from the CDC, Office of Head Start, DHS, MDE, and each of the 8 districts that we are a part of to adapt our policies before the start of the year,” said Schlief.

Like every other school program in the area, Head Start will be closely following developments in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is ready to make adjustments if needed.