PINELLAS COUNTY — It’s never too early for children to get a leg up on education, and Lutheran Services Florida (LSF) is happy to provide a boost for youngsters through their Head Start/Early Head Start program. LSF is a statewide, nonprofit human service agency dedicated to assisting people of all backgrounds, and has more than 60 programs throughout Florida.
Canaan McCaslin, senior director of Public Policy and Community Engagement at LSF, talked about the merits of the early education programs and services offered by the organization. He handles community engagement and outreach for the Head Start programs across the state (Duval, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Pinellas counties).
TWC: What does the LSF Head Start/Early Head Start programs entail?
McCaslin: Head Start/Early Head Start is a federally funded program geared towards low-income children and families. We provide early education, social services, health/nutrition services and parent engagement programs for families enrolled in our program. We take in children between the ages of one and five years old, before they enter kindergarten, and provide them with a full-day and year-round early education classroom experience for free.
TWC: Specifically, how do these programs enhance the development of very young children and promote healthy family functioning?
McCaslin: Our curriculum and materials are based on decades of research and studies on early childhood development and brain development. Our teachers are certified and trained by national accreditors and programs and all have an associate or bachelor degree.
We also have Family and Community Engagement Specialists that work directly with our families as “case-workers” to ensure that families are receiving all the services they need. For our parents, we have the Women Empowerment and Male Involvement/Fatherhood initiatives that train and equip our fathers and mothers on parenting practices, personal finances and workforce/career skills.
In Head Start we recognize that parents are their child’s first teachers and they are at the core of our program. So we seek to empower parents and families and equip them with the tools they need to be self-sufficient and break the cycle of poverty. We provide trainings and workshops for our parents on issues that matter to them, send parents to national trainings and conferences and engage parents in their child’s learning by encouraging at-home activities and parents are involved in the governance of our program through the Policy Council and Parent Committees.
In 2015, the Pinellas County program was one of six programs in the country to receive the Quality Initiative Program of Excellence designation from the National Head Start Association.
TWC: In what capacity does the program provide comprehensive, year-round child and family development services for low-income families with children ages six weeks to three years?
McCaslin: Our program connects children and families to health screenings such as dental, vision, speech and hearing. We screen children for any learning disabilities and provide intervention programs. We also provide nutrition services to families and feed our children breakfast, snack and lunch each day. Lastly, as mentioned above, we provide a host of family engagement programs that positively impact our families.
TWC: Why is it important for parents to enroll in such an early childhood education program these days? Does it help the children better prepared for kindergarten?
McCaslin: Children from low-income backgrounds face a tremendous burden and setback compared to their peers, and early education programs are key to reducing these barriers and giving them an opportunity to enter kindergarten ready to learn and succeed. Research shows that if children aren’t able to read by third grade, then they are likely to drop out of high school. Reading and learning starts at an early age when children are infants and toddlers, and it is important that children are in a structured and high quality program instead of staying at home or with a babysitter.
TWC: In what ways do you assist the parents of these children as well in their education?
McCaslin: We are working on a partnership program with Pinellas County Schools to provide GED courses to our parents this upcoming year. We also provide parents with vouchers to attend St. Pete College to take GED courses or Early Childhood Education (ECE) courses.
TWC: How many LSF Head Start centers are there in Pinellas?
McCaslin: We have 23 centers throughout Pinellas County, with six centers in St. Pete. We are currently enrolling in all of our centers and have open slots in our south county centers. Also, we are always actively looking to partner with existing quality childcare providers within Pinellas County to expand our services and reach.
TWC: What is personally the most rewarding thing about your involvement at LSF?
McCaslin: The most rewarding part of my job is leaving the office and going into the centers to read or interact with the children. It always puts a smile on my face and reminds me of why I chose to work in this field.
For more information on Lutheran Services Florida, visit lsfnet.org.