Getting a head start


Preschoolers Ximena and Jahlissa use sewing cards to develop fine motor and visual perceptual skills at Ratchford Child Development Center.

Preschoolers Ximena and Jahlissa use sewing cards to develop fine motor and visual perceptual skills at Ratchford Child Development Center.

Like all other school and preschool programs across the state, Blount County’s Ratchford Child Development Center in Oneonta closed in March to protect its children from the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

Kelly Nail, the center’s assistant director and health resource specialist, knew the extended time off would make the transition to kindergarten much harder for their 4 and 5 year olds who are set to start “big school” in August.

“Head Start provides a variety of personalized learning experiences to help children grow and succeed,” she said. “There is so much that we didn’t get to finish in the spring.”

Thanks to CARES Act funding, her preschoolers are now getting a little boost before they start “big school.” The Ratchford Center is one of four Head Start classrooms managed by the Community Action Partnership of North Alabama offering a summer program for its pre-k program. Statewide, there are more than two dozen Head Start classrooms offering summer learning courses.

Gaspar and Giovanni enjoy lunch and TV time.

Gaspar and Giovanni enjoy lunch and TV time.

“They were so excited to be back,” Nail said of that first day. “But not as excited as we were to have them back.

“The kids are happy to be back and they’ve all just picked right up where they left off. It’s also provided a little respite for their parents and caregivers.”

Last week, Dr. Trellis Smith, director of the Alabama Head Start Collaboration Office through the Department of Early Childhood Education, visited the center for a glimpse of the summer enrichment program in action.

“This is such an awesome program,” Trellis said. “They are doing such an amazing job with their summer camp and it’s great to see these children so happy and engaged.

“I applaud these centers that have taken the initiative to help their students and support their families during the pandemic. It is so beneficial for the children to have this opportunity as they transition to the next step.”

Ratchford’s summer camp started July 9 and wraps up today. Funding provided slots for 10 students with eight enrolling.

Aryana uses How Do You Feel? puzzles.

Aryana uses How Do You Feel? puzzles.

Every effort has been made to keep students and staff safe and protected. All staff wear masks, temperatures are checked each morning, and students stay with their same group and teachers each day. At the end of each day, everything in the building is sterilized with special units using ultraviolet light technology.

“We have a multilayer system of protection,” Nail said. “Lunches are individualized. They move throughout the day with their same two teachers. We were able to provide backpacks and supplies to each student so they each have their ‘own.’

“And we are cleaning constantly. We’ve been able to hire additional staff to help sanitize throughout the day. They pretty much clean as classes move from room to room.”

Tim Thrasher, CEO of CAPNA, also spoke to the importance of having additional counselors on staff to help children and families work through the emotional toil and stresses brought on by the pandemic.

Alberto practicing good hand hygiene.

Alberto practicing good hand hygiene.

“We recognize that there is a lot of apprehension and fear,” he said. “We wanted to be prepared, and we are prepared, to help our families in every way we can.

“Our number one priority is for our children to be safe and our number one mission is to take care of them, their families, and our staff. I have to commend this staff, not just for what they are doing through the summer program, but for what they’ve done ever since March to take care of their families.”

Nail, center director Sheenae Westmoreland, and many volunteers have delivered more than 40,000 care packages since the pandemic hit. Diapers, wet wipes, formula, and nutritional snacks were delivered either weekly or every other week.

Packets included educational things, too. There were crayons, paper, stickers, and activity books.

“We worked hard to make sure our families had what they needed,” Nail said. “Our teachers used Facebook and Zoom to reach out to their students. It was so important to all of us to have that interaction with our families.

Alberto and Sebastian work with teacher, Caitlin Killough.

Alberto and Sebastian work with teacher, Caitlin Killough.

“And I want to thank Mr. Tim and Community Action for making sure that we have all that we need here at our center not only for our students and families, but for all of us. We are family.”

CAPNA is committed to reducing or eliminating the causes and consequences of poverty in the north Alabama counties it serves through partnerships like Head Start.

“Head Start aligns with everything that we strive for,” Thrasher said. “Through these programs, they are giving them an educational base and a strong foundation to help them succeed as they go on to school and even later as they head out into the world.”

Ratchford Child Development Center operates an early program for infants and toddlers up to age 3. The program also provides services to pregnant women through resource and referral, education, prenatal care, and maternal health.

Each child has his/her own set of supplies to minimize spreading of germs.

Each child has his/her own set of supplies to minimize spreading of germs.

Through home visits, Head Start is able build relationships with the whole family by providing a support network. Other services provided for the children and their families include vision, health, and dental screenings.

Its state-licensed preschool program promotes school readiness by offering a socially stimulating learning environment that encourages children ages 3 to 5 to engage in hands-on experiences and explore the world around them. Each child has an individualized service plan “because every child has his or her own needs and concerns,” Nail explained.

All services offered through Head Start are free. That includes all educational materials as well as breakfast, lunch, and a snack each day. For more information, contact Nail or Westmoreland at 205-625-6254. The Ratchford Child Development Center is always accepting applications.

“We want families here in Blount County to know that we are here to take care of your babies and that we want to take care of your babies,” Nail said.