May 18, 2006 – Students in a local Head Start classroom were full of childhood energy one recent morning, as they rushed at Phyllis Klemuck, the education manager for the St. Thomas-St. John district, with their arms extended for hugs when she entered the room.
"Who dressed for the weather this morning?" she asked. A rainstorm had ended about 15 minutes earlier.
"Meeeee!" answered several young voices.
"This is a very talkative, very active bunch," Klemuck said. "I love sneaking down here because it's a great escape."
For the preschoolers in the Head Start classroom at the Department of Human Services building, it was just another day at school. But this year is significant in that it marks the 40th anniversary of the Head Start program in the territory, where 432 students are currently enrolled in Head Start programs in the St. Thomas-St. John district and more than 460 children in Head Start on St. Croix.
Though a main component of the Head Start program is preschool, the program provides several other services, such as social, health, nutrition and mental health services for children from lower-income families.
"What you see in the classroom is the combination of a lot of parts," Klemuck said.
Head Start started as a summer program nationwide in 1965. The territory's program started the same year and now provides preschool education and more to close to 1,000 families in the Virgin Islands.
The federal program is tax-payer funded to the tune of more than $6.6 billion a year. It is designed to give children from low-income families or other challenging situations a "head start" in school.
Nationwide, Head Start has assisted more than 23 million families since it started in 1965, including more than 850,000 in 2005.
"It's very intensive," Klemuck said of the Head Start program. "I think the proof is in what you see downstairs."
"Downstairs" is one of the St. Thomas-St. John District Head Start classrooms, a large, air-conditioned room with dozens of cubbyholes and several low tables with pint-sized colorful chairs.
Every rug in the room had letters, numbers or other objects for learning. And puzzles and learning tools filled a large supply closet.
A small side room had couches, chairs and desks, and two computers loaded with educational games for the students. Teachers also use the computers for attendance, progress and other reports.
Leading the students there were teacher Mildred Pringle and aides Carmelita Hendricks and Joan Burton.
Pringle has taught preschool children for 17 years. She said that at that age children are especially impressionable and part of the challenge is being very careful to say and do the right things.
"Theyr'e like a sponge, they take everything in," Pringle said.
Of the many things in the classroom, Pringle said the computers are one of the more popular learning tools.
"Some of them are really good at it," Pringle said.
The room was also loaded with books, including "My Goose Betsy," "Go Away, Big Green Monsters!" and "Over on the Farm," which came in English and Spanish.
But in the main classroom, the art area, the water table and a puzzle with farm animals on it also attracted students.
A typical day for most children starts at 7:30 a.m. Mornings include breakfast, circle time, work time, small group work, outdoor play, writing in journals and more.
The average class size for a Head Start program is 15 to 20 students.
Breakfast is at 8 a.m. and on one recent morning included Cream of Wheat cereal, milk and raisins. The kitchen and teachers are able to accommodate needs of children with allergies and special dietary restrictions.
Mealtime conversation that morning centered on animals and insects – specifically dogs and insects. This month's theme in Pringle's classroom is animals. June's theme is "everything changes," when students will study plants and more.
Every morning, teachers have a planning session with students, deciding which area to work on that morning and a strategy of activity. Only after the students have a solid plan are they allowed to start.
"Some choose the same thing over and over," said Hendricks, pointing out one girl who had a penchant for the art table, especially homemade, nontoxic (and non-scented) Play Dough. But students are encouraged to try new things.
Visitors often come to the classroom to read stories or talk to students. Thursdays are story days, and this week Wayne Chinnery from Friends of the Library came to read two books. To the students, Chinnery is known simply as "Grandpa."
After lunch, students take an afternoon nap and play outdoors. A normal day ends at 5:30 p.m. with dismissal, but some students leave earlier in the afternoon.
Head Start classes end this academic year on June 9. Classes restart just after Labor Day.
Registration is ongoing, with extra efforts in the late spring to enroll students for September.
For more information and to apply for Head Start, call the Department of Human Services, Division of Preschool Services, at 774-0930 on St. Thomas or 773-1972 on St. Croix.
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