Jennifer Braun, MSW, LCSW, is a Licensed Certified Social Worker in North Dakota who has worked for Community Action Partnership Head Start/Early Head Start for three years. Jennifer started out as the Head Start Family Partnership Coordinator, and about a year and a half ago, transitioned into the Assistant Director position.
According to the newly released 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, North Dakota ranks first with regard to the economic well-being of children, fourth on family and community measures, 19th for education and 23rd for health. Looking more closely at the education domain, North Dakota ranks 45th among states for enrollment in early childhood education (e.g., 64% of children do not attend preschool). High quality early learning programs for three and four year old children can improve school readiness, with the greatest gains accruing to the highest risk children. Yet, two-thirds of three and four year olds in North Dakota do not attend nursery school or preschool. To gather further insight into the challenges regarding early childhood education and school readiness in the western part of the state, we talked to Jennifer Braun, Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Center Dickinson Public Schools and Community Action Partnership Head Start/ Early Head Start.
Q: What is the goal and purpose of Head Start?
I will start with a little bit of history. In the summer of 1965, a year after President Lyndon Johnson declared The War on Poverty in his State of the Union speech, Sargent Shriver took the lead in developing a comprehensive child development program in favor of disadvantaged preschool children and Project Head Start was launched. The program promotes school readiness for children from low income families and supports the mental, social and emotional development of children from birth to age five in both Head Start and Early Head Start. Early Head Start works with children from birth to three years old and Head Start with children from three to five years old. We really encourage the role of parents as their child’s first and most important educator. Together with the parents, we set goals for their children and support them to reach their goals. Head Start provides comprehensive services including helping parents connect with doctors, dentists, and mental health providers; serving children with disabilities; family goal setting; providing nutrition and transportation services; and helping with transition from Early Head Start to Head Start and from Head Start to kindergarten. When looking specifically at the Dickinson programs, we serve 62 children in Early Head Start and 142 children in Head Start from the eight-county region. The Dickinson program started in 1991 offering Head Start and added Early Head Start in 2010. We have four classrooms that serve 15-17 kids in each classroom, where we offer part-time programs in the morning and afternoon.
Q: Has the population increase taking place in western North Dakota affected your work? Are there particular challenges being faced by your program, your staff, and the families you work with?
Yes, the biggest challenge we face in our area is finding children eligible for the program. To be eligible, the parents’ earnings need to fall below 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. We have the flexibility to enroll 35 percent of children at 101 to 130 percent of poverty guidelines and 10 percent above 130 percent of poverty guidelines. But even so, we are under-enrolled at the present time for Head Start. In our area, due to the oil boom, the wages and salaries are higher than in other parts of the state, or even many parts of the country, so many parents do not meet the eligibility criteria. While families may technically have incomes that are above the poverty guidelines, we know that many of them struggle to make ends meet because of the high costs of everything in our community.
Parents may be earning $12 to $13 per hour, which is higher than minimum wage, but living expenses are also very high. They may be paying $1,700 to $3,000 in rent. Groceries, gas and childcare are all very high-priced, and they are fighting to stay afloat. Yet, based on their incomes, they are above the poverty guidelines and we cannot offer them Head Start services. For that reason, in Dickinson, we don’t have a waiting list for Head Start right now.
Another challenge we face is a high rate of children turnover. Families move to the area, enroll their children, and then the parent either cannot find affordable housing, which is very expensive in this area, or the job falls through and they are forced to move. We have children coming in and out almost like a revolving door and that really impacts the classrooms, behaviors with other children, and the staff. In addition to that, we are also losing children to childcare. Oftentimes in childcare settings, parents are required to pay for a full day, regardless of how long the child is actually there. Due to that, parents are choosing to keep their children in childcare and not send them to Head Start, even if they are eligible.
We also have challenges related to staffing. Due to the oil work, a great deal of businesses have increased the salaries they are paying their workers, making it difficult for us to retain staff. Because we are federally funded, we are not able to compete with salaries offered by oil-related companies.
Families face challenges too. In Dickinson, since it has grown so fast, we still don’t have city buses, so parents who move here and don’t have a vehicle, lack options for transportation. A lot of parents must walk, which is generally okay since we are a small community, but the North Dakota harsh winters make that difficult. We are also finding that more and more children moving here are without health insurance. They may have been eligible for Medicaid in the previous state they lived in, but when they move to North Dakota they have to wait about 30 days for their case to close in their previous state before they can enroll again. Also, some parents may be starting a new job that pays more and disqualifies them from Medicaid.
Q: In light of these challenges, what value do you feel your program brings to the area?
I feel we bring very strong early care and education to families. When children leave Head Start they and their families are better equipped for life and parents have more knowledge of their child’s development and learning style. We really work with parents on what they can do when their child enters kindergarten and how they can be an advocate for their children. Coming from our Early Head Start program, children enter Head Start with higher skills, and they are healthier because we connect them with medical, dental, and mental health services. Children leave Head Start and enter Kindergarten ready to learn.
Q: In what ways could the community better support this work?
Our community is very supportive of the Head Start Program. We have close community partnerships with social services, medical providers, the Women, Infant and Children Program (WIC), and the public schools. We are currently working toward a stronger partnership with childcare providers, especially with the Early Head Start Program – to improve opportunities for families to participate in both childcare and Head Start programs.