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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Children use rhythm sticks before settling in for lunch Friday at the CANI Hanna-Creighton Head Start.

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Children dance to the rhythm at the CANI Hanna-Creighton Head Start. Local officials say attendance for the program is typically 85 percent.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 3:22 pm

Attendance still up for local Head Start

Jeff Wiehe The Journal Gazette

Leighlani Coleman is like a lot of other little girls. 

She likes to run around, play with others and maybe draw, color or try to write her name. 

As an only child, though, the options for the 4-year-old to do all those things with other children her age were limited. But as the child approached her third birthday, her mother, Tamara Coleman, came up with an idea. 

She began to think back to her own childhood, and to a federal program her sister attended designed to prepare young children ages 3, 4 and 5 from families in poverty for kindergarten, aptly called Head Start. 

"One of the appeals, for me, is the child interaction," Coleman said. 

Started in 1964 under the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, Head Start programs all over the country have been celebrating their 50th year, including the programs in Allen, Noble and Whitley counties run by Community Action of Northeast Indiana. 

Recent studies by the Urban Institute that looked at Head Start programs at public schools in Washington, D.C., however, found that more than 25 percent of students enrolled in those programs in that city were chronically absent during the last school year, missing at least 10 percent of the time or the equivalent of a month or more, according to the Washington Post. 

The story gained some traction in the media, but officials with CANI said absenteeism has not been a problem among programs locally. 

"We’ve held to an 85 percent attendance rate," said Mary Lee Freeze, CANI’s vice president of early childhood services. "We have been consistently over this year." 

Freeze also said that CANI’s Head Start has historically maintained the required attendance rate over the program’s history.

CANI has Head Start programs that serve 776 children in the region – 660 in Allen County, 82 in Noble County and 34 in Whitley County. Another program associated with Head Start serves 72 pregnant women, infants and toddlers to age 3 in all three of those counties. 

The programs in Allen County are spread across several different sites. 

Officials are required to report attendance figures to the federal government, which has marked $270 million to go to Head Start programs in the 2015 budget. 

While attendance has not been a problem for CANI’s Head Start programs like in the nation’s capital, officials this year have struggled in keeping the programs’ wait lists filled. 

"We have usually had a fairly long wait list in which we use to fill slots as they become open due primarily to families moving," Freeze said, noting that clients of the program tend to be a transient population. "This year our wait list is down considerably, and mostly we are attributing this to the fact that locally Fort Wayne Community Schools has increased the number of preschool classrooms that they have." 

And usually those in the know about the program learn about it from word of mouth or from the occasional times that program officials go door to door through neighborhoods to let people know of it’s existence, Freeze said. 

For parents like Tamara Coleman, there’s also the chance to participate in parent groups. 

She meets regularly with parents at her child’s Head Start site to discuss what they like about what’s going on in the program or to address any concerns they might have. They can also go over the program’s budget and attend parent meetings at other sites. 

"It’s our chance to find out what they’re doing at other schools," Coleman said.  

And as for little Leighlani, she’s enjoying her second year in a Head Start program. 

Last year she learned to write her name, and she daily plays with children she might not otherwise meet until later, learning how to interact with kids her own age – something she definitely does not currently have at home. 

"She loves it," her mother said. 

jeffwiehe@jg.net