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More than 150 attend Head Start meeting in Chambersburg

November 30, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. ? Deborah Kay Witmer was receiving her Teacher of the Year award on Friday morning from Franklin County Head Start when 4-year-old Zion Valenca gave a spontaneous demonstration of the program's importance to children, reading aloud from the book "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom."

"A, B, C ... Chicka Chicka Boom Boom," read the State Line, Pa., boy, who had accompanied Witmer to the podium during the breakfast meeting at The Orchards Restaurant. He continued reading, and asked Witmer to join him.

Zion is one of the more than 10,000 children who have attended Head Start in the county since its inception as a summer program in 1965. The federally funded program this year serves 289 children in 17 classes around the county, Executive Director Carol Sutton said.

"Children are inheritors of poverty's curse, not its creators," County Commissioner Bob Thomas said, quoting Lyndon Johnson, who was president at the time Head Start was created. The preschool program for children from low-income families was part of Johnson's "War on Poverty."

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When created, the eight-week program was expected to draw a few thousand children around the country, county Head Start Chairman Craig Sencindiver told the more than 150 people at the meeting. Instead, "a half million children showed up that summer," including 365 in Franklin County, he said.

The program later evolved into a nine-month, half-day program, Sencindiver said, and now includes full-day, full-year programs and Early Head Start for infants and toddlers. Beyond education, Head Start now provides children and their families living below the federal poverty line with health, nutrition, parenting instruction and other social services, he said.

"My life changed when my oldest daughter was accepted into Head Start," said Missy Wagaman of Waynesboro, Pa., who told how she went from having a child in the program to becoming a Head Start teacher.

"Early intervention is really where it's at ... We are in the child-care business," said Paul Sick, an elementary school principal in the Chambersburg Area School District and a Head Start board member.

While Head Start serves less than 300 students, Sick said about 1,200 qualify. Those who take part show marked improvement in language, literacy and math skills by the time they enter school, he said.

Sutton said threats to the program include cuts in federal funding, increased transportation costs and unfunded mandates. While 70 percent of the teachers now are certified, beginning salaries of $20,228 make it difficult to recruit and retain them, she said.

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