Most new moms hear how important the first three years of a baby’s life are. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to give their new children what they need, and if they do know how, they may lack the resources. And though a mother’s love is often considered a perfect thing, it is not a perfect world.
Enter Early Head Start (EHS). In recognition of the importance of the first three years to a child’s healthy growth and development and to later success in school and in life, the 1994 Head Start Reauthonzation established a new program for low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers. The purpose of the program is to enhance children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development; enable parents to be better care givers of and teachers to their children; and to help parents meet their own goals, including that of economic independence.
The services provided by EHS programs are designed to reinforce and respond to the unique strengths and needs of each child and family. These services include: quality early education in and out of the home; home visits (especially for families with newborns and other infants and toddlers); parent education (including parent-child activities), comprehensive health services, (including services to women before, during and after pregnancy); nutrition; and ongoing support for parents through case management and peer support groups. There are currently two EHS grantees in Nevada — in Northern Nevada, the University of Nevada Reno, and in Southern Nevada, the Economic Opportunity Board of Clark County (which also serves Elko and Ely).
The Northern Nevada program began enrollment in August 1999 and is already at full capacity with 64 children. Southern Nevada began accepting children in the home-based program in August 1998 and then opened a center in September 1999. Current enrollment is full at 120 (including 20 in Ely and 20 in Elko) and a waiting list has been established for both children and pregnant women. Staff at the facilities, both north and south, includes childcare workers, home visitors, family service professionals, training coordinators, nutritionists, family nurse practitioners and life skill technicians. Partnerships and support also come from the dental, mental health, health care and educational communities to ensure all children (including those with disabilities) receive comprehensive health care. “A healthy child,” says Jane Hogue, project coordinator in Reno, “is able to learn and grow and develop properly.” And Program Performance Standards emphasize health care for that reason.
Both programs, north and south, are eager to expand. The need is there, as evidenced by how quickly enrollment has been filled. Diana Goff, administrator of Child and Family Services Division and director of EHS, struggles with the fact that current funding supports partial-day services rather than needed full-day services, which would be more effective. She would like to see private donations to supplement the EHS grants and help the program with not only expanding services, but also in building new facilities and hiring qualified staff. However, she says, even with funding, it is hard to find infant-toddler professionals at a level acceptable to the EHS mandates. By 2003, EHS requires all its teachers to have a two- or four-year degree in early childhood or an appropriate degree with additional credit hours in those areas. EHS is not just a place to drop off the babies — it is a serious, comprehensive, professional program for complete infant-toddler development, and finding staff to fit is no easy task. North and South EHS programs are currently hiring.
All EHS children receive pre- and post EHS assessment in the classroom to ensure they are learning and growing. “When our children go to kindergarten,” Goff says, “people say, ‘We know the child came from one of your classrooms. Thank you for having them ready.” It is this kind of recognition that keeps both staffs impassioned and creative in their pursuits of quality and quantity of service.
EHS contributes to its communities as a whole. By helping parents turn their lives around, they help produce productive, taxpaying citizens. By investing in early childhood — it is estimated that for every dollar that goes into early childhood programs, $100 are saved by the taxpayers later in that child’s life — the community receives long-term benefits. And employers are receiving the short-term benefits of an expanded hiring pool due to affordable daycare and healthcare.
One of the program’s newest resources is its National Prenatal Hotline, which immediately connects callers with a local maternal and child health program or Healthy Start site. The hotline provides information on prenatal care, mails printed materials, and links the caller with other agencies and organizations working to improve maternal and child health: English: 1-800-311-BABY; Spanish: 1-800-504-7081.