"We decided we wanted to provide more classroom opportunities for children about to enter kindergarten," said Diane Ansari, Head Start coordinator for Regional Education Service Agency VIII. She's in charge of Head Start programs in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.
The building, which actually opened last November, was made possible with a $109,000 federal grant and donations from businesses and individuals. Ansari said the total project cost about $140,000.
She said the dedication was delayed while additional improvements were made in recent months. That included painting by Americorps volunteers over the summer and the recent paving of the parking lot.
Prior to the building opening, Berkeley County had no center-based Head Start programs, Ansari said. Now there are three classrooms, a fenced play area and meals provided by Berkeley Heights Elementary.
In Jefferson County, a 5,200-square-foot center is under construction. Paid for in part by a $241,000 federal grant, the center will restore center-based programming there, Ansari said.
Ansari said center-based programs in Jefferson County were held in rooms provided by the school system. The growing student population, however, meant Head Start had to move out. Since last month the program has been run from a trailer provided by a church.
Head Start serves 83 children and their families in Jefferson County and, when it opens on the campus of T.A. Lowery Elementary School, 36 of them will be in center-based programs, Ansari said.
Another 67 children participate in Head Start programs in Morgan County.
Still, the programs only reach about half the eligible children in the Eastern Panhandle, according to U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va. He told the guests at the dedication the figure nationally is about 41 percent.
He noted Head Start gets bipartisan support in Congress and "it's an easy one to be supportive of."
The House has agreed to increase Head Start funding by 8 percent next year to $4.3 billion. The Senate is proposing a smaller increase. Wise said the difference will be worked out in the budget process.
Ansari said the annual budget for Head Start in the Eastern Panhandle is about $1.2 million.
Berkeley Heights Principal Steve Crowell and Berkeley Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon both emphasized the importance of parental involvement and pre-school programs in the success of students.
Arvon said children the schools get "directly off the front porch" start at a disadvantage compared to those who were in pre-school programs.
"It's not just what happens in this building, it's what happens at home," Wise said.