WAYNESBORO — The guest speaker at Friday's annual meeting of First Start Partnership for Children & Families urged those in attendance to understand the importance of getting a head start on early learning.

"The foundation of cognitive, social and emotional skills is the foundation of our workforce in the future," said Jesse McCree, CEO of South Central Pa Works. "The foundation really starts from 0-5 years old."

Based in Chambersburg, First Start Partnership (formerly Head Start) is focused not only on providing educational opportunities to young children across Franklin County, but also partnering with families, school districts, churches, healthcare providers, government and more to ensure future success of our youngest community members.

"Parenting is hard and children do not come with an owner's manual," said Annette Searfoss, president and CEO of First Start. "We are working to ensure our children area ready for kindergarten while helping to build stronger families and more vibrant communities."

Last year, 358 children age 3 to 5 were served by Head Start and 146 children age birth to 3 were served by Early Head Start across Franklin County.

Funding comes from a variety of federal and state sources.

In 2019, First Start received $3,267,572 in federal funding frmo the Administration for Children & Families, as well as $408,003 in state Head Start Supplemental Assistance and partnerships with five county school districts resulted in $2,446,645 in Pre K Counts funds.

As a result, 81 percent of children in First Start classrooms had the skills needed for kindergarten in all developmental areas except math and all children made significant developmental gains from the beginning of the school year, according to Searfoss.

McCree said he believes that successful start in learning can lead to great things later in life.

"The No. 1 challenge across Pennsylvania is can we find a skilled workforce and can we retain a skilled workforce," he said. "Research shows the earlier the start, the better the outcomes. The return on investment on an early childhood education program is 13 percent every year. It's not just about getting a job ... it's about investing in the economics of human potential."

That's key when it comes to building a successful workforce.

McCree said 93 percent of employers say critical thinking, communication and solving complex problems is more important than an undergraduate major when it comes to hiring a job candidate.

"Many employers say bring us someone who can think and communicate and we'll teach them the rest," he said.

Early education is also the focus of officials at the Waynesboro Area School District.

Also Friday, the school district and First Start debuted the new Child Development Center in the Waynesboro Area Senior High School.

The facility based in the former D Wing includes two classrooms with a total of 34 preschoolers age 3 to 5, an indoor play space, high school family/consumer science classroom and a WellSpan Health clinic. The center will also house a staff daycare room in the future.

"Our understanding is it's one of a kind. There's nothing else like it in Central Pa.," said Superintendent Tod Kline. "In Waynesboro, we want every child to realize their first choice in whatever they want to do after high school. We'll do what we can to prepare them ... so they can be successful in whatever path they choose."

The center is funded with no taxpayer dollars. Earlier this year, the district was awarded an increase of $283,000 in Pre-K Counts grant funding for early childhood classes, bringing the district total funding to about $1.03 million over the next four years.

The state-funded discretionary money allows the district to provide a total of seven Pre-K Counts classrooms — including two at Mowrey Elementary and three at the Waynesboro Day Care Center — with the ability to hold 20 students per classroom, potentially servicing 140 preschool students each year.

Kline said it's due to relationships with WellSpan and First Start that will make the center a success.

"Those partnerships are creating quite an impact in this building, among these kids and in our community," Kline said. "I think for the Waynesboro School District, the best days are yet ahead."