When Martin King’s sister encouraged him to enroll his children at a Head Start in Gulfport, he took her advice and glad he did.
“The program has been a great blessing and experience for my kids,” said King. “They are more open to other people and have learned a lot.”
King’s children, ages 3 and 5, began class in September at Gaston Point Head Start in Gulfport. It is one of several locations in Harrison County where the Mississippi State University Extension Service manages and delivers the early learning program.
Head Start programs offer services that help children and families by providing an environment that fosters health, family well-being and, early learning and development. King said his family has reaped all those benefits.
“Since they’ve been in this program, I can tell a big difference in my kids,” he said. “They communicate better, talk better. I can understand them better. They are more social and more willing to play with other kids, where before they would hesitate to play with children they didn’t know.
“They have definitely learned new things. They will correct you really quick,” King said.
Both of King’s daughters enjoy the program.
“During Spring Break, they asked me every day if they were going to school,” he laughed. “Sometimes on the weekends they ask.”
Because Head Start recognizes that parent involvement is one of the most important aspects of student success, parents are encouraged to volunteer at school and share learning experiences with their children at home.
Students get projects and educational materials, including books, to take home that extend their classroom learning.
Currently, students are doing an educational unit on growing that is incorporated into all the students’ learning activities. King’s children are growing cucumber plants and butterflies at home.
“Everyone has a cucumber plant, and we have two cucumbers right now,” he said. “We also have a butterfly growing kit. We have cocoons right now, so we’ll have butterflies soon.”
Each Head Start site is staffed with a family advocate who works with families of enrolled students to ensure they have access to needed resources, such as housing assistance, employment assistance, medical care and basic needs.
“We got a book of available services with phone numbers and everything before my kids were even accepted to the program,” King said. “I was shocked by that, but it is great.”
King didn’t have a car when his children started the program. Gaston Point Head Start family advocate Pricilla Alford helped him get a bike with a covered wagon to get his children more easily to and from school.
“When we found out they didn’t have a car, we went to work to help them get a reliable way to get the kids back and forth to school,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things we do to help families. I love my job. I get to help people every day. It’s been an amazing trip with this family.”
Alford said she’s seen a difference in the whole family in the seven months they’ve been involved in Head Start.
“The kids have opened up, but so has their dad,” Alford said. “They were all very quiet and reserved but being enrolled here has made a big difference for all of them.”
Jamila Taylor, director of MSU Extension’s Head Start program, said families get various types of support — from monthly food boxes to assistance with utilities.
“We help them with whatever we see their needs are,” Taylor said. “It could be a family dealing with homelessness or needing help with utility bills, anything that affects their well-being.
“This is part of our job — making sure we help families by linking them to the resources and services they need. What we do helps build a better community. It’s all connected — children, families and community.”
MSU Extension’s Head Start program is federally funded through the Office of Head Start. The program has a partnership with Gulfport School District, which offers blended enrollment at five elementary schools.
A second partnership agreement with Biloxi School District allows for facility usage. One of Extension’s Head Start programs is housed in a Biloxi district building.
Extension’s program serves 82 pre-kindergarten children in the Gulfport School District partnership. There is also an Early Head Start partnership with Moore Community House, which currently serves 21 infants and toddlers. Early Head Start has 64 total funded slots.
Because of the lingering effects of COVID, Extension’s Head Start program is not up to its funded capacity of 488.
Front Photo: Martin King talks with Pricilla Alford at Gaston Point Head Start, where his children attend class. Alford, the center’s family advocate, helped King get a bike with a covered wagon to get his children more easily to and from school. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Michaela Parker)