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Sun, Sept. 19

Williams preschool program could lose funding because of declining student numbers
Enrollment down at Williams Head Start

Above and below: Williams Head Start students spend time playing outside to develop their motor skills. The Williams program is currently trying to fill three open spots in its afternoon program. Ryan Williams/WGCN

Above and below: Williams Head Start students spend time playing outside to develop their motor skills. The Williams program is currently trying to fill three open spots in its afternoon program. Ryan Williams/WGCN

WILLIAMS, Ariz. - Starting kindergarten can be a difficult transition for children if they have never interacted in a classroom setting.

Williams' Head Start program prepares children for kindergarten by setting the foundation for language and literacy skills as well as social, physical and emotional development.

Head Start is a national program that promotes school readiness in low-income families through education, health screenings, services for children with special needs and nutrition information. According to the program's website, Head Start has served more than 30 million children ages zero to five since it started in 1965. The program is free for those who qualify.

The Williams Head Start program has slots for 19 students in the morning and 19 in the afternoon. Although the Williams location has traditionally filled all of its spots, Center Director Michelle Shemwell said staff is currently trying to fill three open spaces in its afternoon session.

"We have always had a waiting list and always had parents coming through our doors with applications saying, 'When can I get my child in?'" she said.

Shemwell believes the openings could be a result of families moving away from Williams in search of work or a lower birth rate.

Since the Williams program does not have full enrollment, it is not in compliance with Head Start's performance standards. Every time a center has a drop in enrollment, the staff must compose a document outlining the steps they will take to try to fill the spot. Because of the three openings in the Williams location's afternoon session, the program could potentially see a decrease in funding in the future.

"We'll continue to go door to door, hang posters, attend community events and hopefully find those children that haven't heard about the program," Shemwell said.

Aside from the funding implications, Shemwell hopes to fill the three open spots because she believes Head Start students receive a comprehensive preschool education.

The Head Start classroom is set up with different centers, including areas for literacy and writing, computers and iPads, table toys, blocks, housekeeping, art and science. The students have different jobs in the classroom, from caring for their pet frog to turning out the lights to serving as a line leader.

A typical day for the students starts with eating breakfast, having circle time, brushing their teeth, moving freely from center to center and playing outdoors.

Throughout the day, instructors strive to develop a child's critical thinking skills. For example, if teachers read the story of the "Three Little Pigs" to the class, they'll ask their students what material they would have used to build their house.

"We want to intrigue their thinking process," Shemwell said.

Teachers also emphasize a practice called conscious discipline, which is a way for children to deal with stress, anger or sadness. The technique teaches children about consequences, positive intent, empathy, composure, encouragement, choices and assertiveness.

"We start here at a very early age and they begin to learn how to express themselves, tell others how they feel. And it works," Shemwell said. "Those that just go to kindergarten, some of them are only children, some of them do have siblings, but they've not always had the experience of socializing with other children their age."

In addition to the social and educational components of the program, Head Start students also benefit from various health related check ups. Students receive education screenings, mental health screenings, audio and vision testing, and physical and dental exams.

"We're able to identify anything that may put them at risk and get those services taken care of before they even enter the public school," Shemwell said. "They get a head start before they hit kindergarten."

The various components of the Head Start program prepare students to be successful when they advance to the school system.

"We have children that leave here writing words, identifying their name, doing a lot," Shemwell said. "A lot of people say, 'Oh that's just a daycare down the road,' but we do a lot."

The Williams Head Start is located at 310 W. Sherman. Early Head Start and Home Based programs are also available. More information is available at (928) 635-4273.

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