They’re known as Miss Kim and Miss Sara virtually everywhere they go.
Kim Hilario and Sara Slaats, Reedsburg’s Head Start teachers, are well known in a community of young parents that appear to understand the value of starting a child’s education early.
Head Start classes are held four days a week, with separate morning and afternoon sessions.
There are 43 children enrolled in the Head Start program, and another 17 are enrolled in that site’s 4-year old kindergarten program.
Both Hilario and Slaats bubble forth with information about Head Start when asked them about it.
“I get so giddy when I talk about my job,” Slaats said. “We get to know our children very well. We get to know the families really well. I know about my students. You see such huge growth, and it’s so exciting to see that.
“My goal in my classroom is for students to have a fun, safe place to learn and have fun and be happy.”
“I love our families and our students,” Hilario said. “One of the great things is we not only provide a very quality program for the kids, but we have the advantage of partnering with parents and helping them with whatever resource needs they have.”
The main thing the teachers want parents to know is that Head Start is for any child at any developmental level. The program is not specifically designed for kids with special needs, but those children have been among those who have succeeded at Head Start.
The primary eligibility requirement is family income. Head Start uses federal poverty guidelines in determining eligibility. However, families with higher incomes can apply for places on the program’s waiting list; children from families with lower incomes are accommodated first.
“A lot of people have different ideas of what Head Start is,” Slaats said. “One of the misconceptions we see is that people believe this is only a place for kids with special needs. It’s not that at all.
“Children of all different development levels are in our program,” Slaats said. There are children with special needs, but the program is not specifically for children with special needs.
“We meet the child at the level they’re at. They come in all different levels. We give them the head start push in their learning. Adapting to those levels comes naturally to me.”
In Head Start classes, it’s all about play time. Both Hilario and Slaatz agree it’s through play that children at early stages learn some of the most important lessons in their young lives.
“Our program helps prepare the kids as they move up in school,” Slaatz said. “We focus a lot on social skills. We do academic (learning) but we’re more play-based. We know the kids learn through play.
“If kids don’t have the social skills, they’re not going to be ready to learn. We focus on that so they are ready to learn.”
The other major component of the Head Start program is parental and family involvement.
“The parents know their kids better than anybody,” Hilario said. “We want to see the whole family be successful. We know the kids and we know their moms and their dads, their grandmas and grandpas, their pets, their brothers and sisters. It’s nice because we really get connected in and get very attached to the families.”
The programs offered beyond the classroom activities are parenting classes — beginning with pre-natal mothers — field trips, some of which are geared toward fathers or male figures in a child’s life, first aid and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, fire safety, nutrition, budgeting and what to do when a child is sick.
Slaats said the students receive a nutritional breakfast during the morning session and a lunch during the afternoon session.
The food is prepared on-site by Head Start’s own cook. The menu can consist of cereal, waffles or pancakes for breakfast, and soup, sandwiches or a casserole for lunch.
Students eat family-style. Everyone stacks their own plate and pours their own milk. Meal time is a time for learning manners.
Hilario’s class has several bilingual students. Hilario speaks Spanish and instills a respect in her students for other languages and cultures.
“That adds a really cool dynamic to our classroom,” Hilario said. “I’ve had students who have only spoken Spanish. Then I have other kids that just speak English. By the end of the year, both sets of students are speaking bits and pieces of each other’s language.”
Hilario said the trend in education is to foster the native language with which students come to school. The days are gone when English was the only acceptable language.
Hilario said she celebrates that in her classes.
“That mother tongue is so important,” Hilario said. “It’s really important to them not to lose their home language. They’re finding kids stay better connected with their families that way. If kids aren’t strong in their primary language, it makes learning a second language that much more difficult.”
The Reedsburg Area School District is heading into its second year of 4-year old kindergarten. There are about 160 children enrolled in that program, district-wide.
The building at 400 Alexander Road that houses the Head Start program also is a 4-year old kindergarten location.
“We’ve had a really good time in a collaboration with the school district,” Hilario said. “If we do have questions about the needs of a child, I can bounce it off a teacher there.”
The local Head Start falls under the umbrella of the human services agency Renewal Unlimited, based in Portage. The agency helps lower-income families with home improvement loans and home buying, offers employment training and high-school GED services (called “Fresh Start”) for 17- to 24- year olds, and a family resource center.