SHERIDAN — For more than 20 years, the Sheridan County Head Start program has been preparing hundreds of preschool aged children for their first year of school.
The Sheridan Head Start program is part of the regional Absaroka Head Start program which encompasses 10 communities in seven counties. The program serves 319 children, with 36 of those in Sheridan County.
The program has been in operation in Sheridan since 1991 and for the past 16 years, it has been located in the lower level of the Sheridan Wesleyan Church. For a student to be accepted into Head Start, they must be 4 years old and their parents must meet income or other eligibility requirements. Children living below the poverty line, foster children, children with disabilities or special needs, children with an incarcerated parent and a host of other factors are used to determine eligibility.
Children attend class Monday through Thursday from 8:20 a.m. to noon. The children are broken up into two classes of 18 students each. Rather than a day care program where they are simply supervised, Head Start works to educate children and prepare them to enter kindergarten.
“You almost have to know, going into kindergarten, what we used to know by the end of kindergarten,” said Sheri Weeder, a Head Start teacher aide. “The standards just keep going up.”
“We are comprehensive preschool for 4-year-old children the year before kindergarten,” echoed Tracey Michaelis, the center director. “We are preparing children for kindergarten. Every time standards are raised for kindergarten, they are raised for Head Start as well.”
The children learn basics, such as letters, numbers and shapes, but Weeder and Michaelis also emphasized that socialization skills are integrated throughout the day.
“When they go to kindergarten, a lot of kids maybe don’t know how to take care of their plate or silverware, but here they are learning those self-help skills,” said Weeder. “They dish up their own food and pour their own milk and brush their teeth after breakfast.”
Weeder and Michaelis said that reading and literacy is also highly encouraged in the program and children even receive short, age-appropriate homework assignments every couple of weeks.
In addition to education and socialization skills, the program provides health screenings to make sure children are healthy before entering kindergarten and have had a vision test, immunizations, a dental checkup and other screenings.
Parents of children enrolled in Head Start pay no fees for their child’s participation. The program is 80 percent federally funded and 20 percent funded with in-kind donations, usually volunteer hours worked by parents. Parents are expected to be involved in the program and spend many hours volunteering.
“Because the parents volunteer at least once a month and sometimes more, we really develop a close relationship and we are almost like a family,” Weeder said. “We are always talking to you here. It is almost like a sense of family, where I hope families feel comfortable with us. A lot of them share a lot of personal things in order for us to help them and their children.
“I believe we are unique because we are not just here for the kids, we are here for the families,” she continued. “We have meetings with the families, we set goals with the families and help them accomplish those goals throughout the year. And we believe as we move families forward, we are moving children forward.”
Enrollment applications are always being taken. Michaelis said anyone interested in enrolling their child in Head Start should contact the office and come in to complete an application. Although there is often a waiting list to enter the program, Michaelis said filling out the application allows the computer program they use to prioritize applicants based on need. She said many people may not realize that they are eligible to enroll and she encourages anyone interested to contact Head Start at 674-5330.