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York County Head Start ranks among top in US

York County’s Head Start program recently underwent an on-site federal review of its 12 pre-k classrooms, and received scores placing it in the top 10% in the U.S. in two areas, and above the national average in a third–that is, among the highest achieving pre-k programs in the nation. The scores were released in May.

“We’re very proud of these results,” said Barbara Crider, Executive Director of York County Community Action Corporation. “The results capture all the hard work and dedication of our exceptional Early Childhood Education staff.”

The review–called CLASS, for Classroom Assessment Scoring System–looks at ten dimensions of teacher-child interaction on a seven-point scale. The ten dimensions assess classroom climate, teacher sensitivity and regard for student perspectives, behavioral management, productivity, instructional learning and concept development, quality feedback and language modeling.

The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 requires that the Office of Head Start review Head Start agencies using a valid and reliable research-based observational instrument. The instrument evaluates classroom quality, including the assessment of teacher-child interactions that are linked to positive child outcomes and later achievement.

York County Head Start put in place practices that provided the support, training and tools for the program’s teachers to be fully effective in their work, which in turn led to the elevated CLASS ranking and, most importantly, the successful preparation of children for school.

“We have always had a high achieving program,” said Michelle Fleagle, Director of YCCAC’s Children’s Services program, “so the CLASS ranking was both a welcome reward to our teachers and other Head Start staff, and affirmation of our commitment to the children and families we serve.”

Among the practices implemented by York County Head Start were enhanced classroom observations, individual teacher mentoring, coordination among classrooms to ensure teaching uniformity, assistance from an education specialist from the Head Start regional office in Boston, and use of an evidence-based curriculum.

“Our program launched what are called TLC Groups–Teachers Learning and Collaborating Groups–for teachers to work with their peers on teaching practices and skills, and to help and support each other,” Ms. Fleagle said. “There is no requirement to participate, but the program is available to all Head Start staff.”

Head Start is the most effective program for preparing children for kindergarten in the U.S. Begun in 1965 to help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children, Head Start was designed to help break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children from low income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs.

Studies in recent years have shown that early childhood education has an early and a long-term impact on the child–that is, benefits that last far into the child’s future. Early benefits include fulfilled curiosity, which positively impacts academic performance; building of trust in other children and adults; and learning discipline and structure, balanced with fun. Later benefits show up as higher academic achievement (more likely to graduate from high school and go to college), more likely to own a home, and less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

And early education programs, like Head Start, are popular. Nickolas Kristoff, writing in The New York Times in 2014, noted that “preschool may also be the only issue on which voters agree. A poll last year found that 60 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats support expansion of prekindergarten. Republican-led states like Oklahoma have been leaders in early education for a simple reason: It works.”

“We’re always working to achieve greater results for the children in our program,” Ms. Fleagle said. “That we’ve scored so well in the CLASS assessment, keeping us among the top early education programs in the country, is wonderful, it’s a testament to our work and our staff and the leadership of our organization, but it also means that we need to continue seeking new and better ways to prepare children for school–and all the years beyond.”

York County Children’s Services maintains 12 Head Start classrooms at 10 sites throughout the county. There are 6 Early Head Start classrooms–for ages 6 weeks to 3 years–and 1 Early Head Start home-based option. In 2017, there were 204 children enrolled in York County Head Start, and 85 in Early Head Start.