This summer marks 50 years of services provided to millions of families across the country through Head Start.
As programs in Washington and Warren counties prepare for celebrations marking their success, others are reflecting on their experiences in the program.
A South Glens Falls family has five generations touched by the program, with the newest addition, two-month old Kayden Pultorak, set to benefit from Early Head Start, which serves children from birth to 3 years old.
Kayden’s great-great-grandmother, Joan Ramsey, was around when the local program started.
“I remember them saying, ‘Head Start belongs to you,’ so we took the reins,” she said of her volunteer days in the classroom for her sons, Ernest and Michael Ramsey.
Ramsey remembered the boys were more prepared for kindergarten than her older daughter, Eleanor, who was too old to attend Head Start when it was launched.
Josh Pultorak, Ramsey’s great-grandson, cradled Kayden against his chest as they talked about Head Start last week.
Moments before, the baby was fussing, but now he was quiet and content, with bright eyes and wild dark hair.
Josh, 20, was visiting his mother, Christy Pultorak, in her South Glens Falls home.
Christy’s youngest son, Chris Mahoney, 4, took to the trampoline in the backyard, enjoying the sunniest weather of spring so far.
Christy’s two other sons, Jacob, 7, and Michael, 15, were in school.
Of her four boys, Chris is the least ready to start school, she said.
A move, a waiting list and a lengthy drive for a classroom prevented Chris from attending the Head Start program.
He starts kindergarten in the fall, but Christy said working with phonics and other educational activities hasn’t been enough to get him to the place his three older brothers were at the same age.
“He’s just not as prepared,” she said. “The others knew their colors and numbers. They could write their names.”
While she worked with the others at home, Christy says it was the joint effort of the Head Start program and the family that made the difference.
Josh recalled activities from his Head Start days in Warren County.
“I remember show and tell and learning how to spell my name,” he said.
“We went on nature walks and we planted trees,” he said, as his mother pulled out photos of Josh next to his tree.
“That must be pretty big by now,” he said of his tree.
Field trips and activities are an integral part of the program that includes the entire family.
Christy said it’s a misconception that the program is day care for low-income families.
It’s not day care
Shelly Sweet of Queensbury has been employed with the program in Warren County since 1986. She has heard the myth.
Although the program is for income-qualified families, “It’s not day care and it’s for the whole family,” she said.
Sweet got involved initially in 1982 when her oldest daughter was enrolled.
“I really didn’t know anything about Head Start before that,” she said.
Sweet has worn many hats for Head Start since then, including being a bus driver, kitchen staffer and cleaner. She is currently a classroom aide.
Sweet has attended national conferences in Washington, D.C., meeting other Head Start representatives and learning how other programs are run.
All are funded with federal grant money and must follow the same regulations.
“I really liked seeing how different programs operate. There wasn’t one that was better than the others. They are all good,” she said.
In Warren County, the program is its own entity; while in Washington County, the Economic Opportunity Council operates as an umbrella group for services.
Tyler Whitney, Washington County EOC program director, said Sweet is one of many parents who fell in love with the program when their child participated.
He said about a third of the employees in Washington County are parents of former students.
“When I started, all of our classes were in churches,” Sweet said.
Today, Warren County runs its program in four area elementary schools, with an additional center at SUNY Adirondack and another on Pearl Street in Glens Falls.
In Washington County, EOC owns a center in Cambridge, while the remaining four centers are owned by Washington County and donated for the specific use of Head Start.
Early Head Start
Linda Pollock has been with Head Start since 1981, starting in Warren County as the program’s director. She credits part of the program’s success with its solid start.
“There were 14 of the top minds in education and child development working on this,” she said.
“It was a think tank,” she said. “They did it right, right from the beginning.”
Nutrition, safety and social and emotional development have been the focus since the beginning.
Events such as a recent evening story time show how the program pulls in the entire family.
Children arrived in pajamas at the center at Dix Avenue in Hudson Falls, ready for stories, while parents attended a separate activity to enhance their own techniques in interacting and reading to their children.
The expansion to include Early Head Start came in 1995.
“They found that 60 percent of brain development happens in the first three years,” Pollock said. “We’d be missing a huge piece if we wait until children are three.
The original program served 3- and 4-year-olds.
Early Head Start is available to pregnant mothers and children from birth to 3 to assist the child’s family with physical, cognitive, social and emotional development.
Developing the family
Lynn Marie Panoushek, expecting her sixth child, learned of Early Head Start more than a decade ago.
She was applying for the Women Infants Children program when expecting her first daughter, Brooklynn Skelton, 10, and the WIC leaders referred her to Early Head Start.
Panoushek credits Head Start with getting daughter Brooklynn speech services she needed when, at 3, she still was not talking.
By 4, she was talking, and now, Panoushek said, “she never stops.”
Brooklynn is a straight A student, said her mother.
Panoushek said Head Start has been helpful, also, with her daughters who have special needs.
Home-based services, in which Panoushek’s youngest children participate, are offered as an alternative to services at the centers.
The program’s home-based educator, Peggy McDonald, provides the Panoushek family with nutrition and parenting advice when she visits for 90 minutes every week.
“I call Peggy right up,” Panoushek said of things that may arise that she needs helps with. “If she doesn’t know the answer, she’ll make sure to find out and get it.”
Panoushek now sits on the Head Start Policy Council, which gives parents a formal means of getting involved .
The position has empowered Panoushek. She recently earned her high school equivalency diploma.
“It’s something I don’t think I would have finished without Peggy’s support,” she said.
The confidence is passing through to her children.
“My oldest daughter always tells me she knows I will always succeed. She is proud of me,” Panoushek said.
On the horizon for Panoushek are college courses, with a future in education.
“I want to be a home-based educator, like Peggy,” she said.