Head Start makes a difference for youngest learners in Greencastle

Staff Writer
Echo Pilot
Wyneen Medina, Head Start teacher, sits with Madison Summers and Kayleigh Coplin at an activity table. The children are being prepared for kindergarten through literacy, math and science skills and social emotional experiences.

Head Start is celebrating 50 years of helping children and low income families in the United States. Franklin County is one of the original programs funded since 1965. And closer to home, Greencastle has hosted a Head Start site for approximately 20 years. And through those doors, hundreds of young learners have been served.

Wyneen Medina and Ashley Hunsinger are the lead teachers, assisted by Sarah Valenca and Katie Shope. They have nearly 20 children per classroom. Sessions are held for six hours Mondays through Thursdays at Evangelical Lutheran Church, from late August through early May.

The objective has changed through the years, said Medina, who has been involved for at least 15 of them.

“We are focusing more on academics now,” she said. “And we partner with the parents to meet goals they set. The program is more well-rounded.”

At Head Start the day revolves around academics in literacy, math and science; social-emotional experiences, using play and cooperation; and physical development, both fine and gross motor skills.

“We want the children to be equal to their counterparts when they enter kindergarten, and have the same advantages,” said Medina. “We work hard at that.”

The program is open to children ages three to five. The staff collaborates with the primary school kindergarten teachers on curriculum.

The Head Start teachers witness growth in their young charges.

“It gets exciting to see how they grow over the school year,” Valenca said. She was introducing the alphabet sounds as the letters were presented on a large screen.

Hunzinger found joy in watching the children discover new things, and developing close relationships with them and their families.

“It doesn’t feel like work,” she said.

She was credentialed to teach with an elementary education degree from Shippensburg University, and she later obtained early childhood certification from Clarion University. Medina went to college when employment standards changed. She recently earned a bachelors degree in Early Childhood Education from Eastern University. Her AA degree came from Harrisburg Area Community College.

Medina enjoys teaching the parents how to teach their kids, another part of her job. She shares how to use everyday experiences for education, which is much more feasible than worksheets and structured lessons.

The most tenured of the staff, Medina plans to keep teaching the youngest students in the school district.

“As long as I know I’m making a difference, I’ll teach as long as I can,” she said.

The children enroll in kindergarten at Greencastle-Antrim Primary School, and they blend in well with the other students.

Principal Angela Singer said all of the pupils were assessed equally, and the most needy received services, regardless of whether they had been in Head Start. She saw the program as valuable for creating readiness.

“Absolutely. It gives them a structured learning environment and experience,” she said. “They learn the foundational skills and routines necessary for kindergarten.”

In addition, some of the preschool youngsters are referred earlier for speech or occupational therapy through Lincoln Intermediate Unit, because they are identified at Head Start.

Franklin County enrolls about 500 children each year, and serves 317 low income families. Other facets of the program using federal and state funds have been added to meet needs. The county offers Early Head Start for families with infants and toddlers.  PA Pre K Counts classrooms give preschool services to families with an income at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty limit.

All began because of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, and since then more than 31 million children have benefitted.

Cynthia Ash, executive director of Franklin County Head Start, said the agency assesses the children through an online system three times a year. They also keep data on parents as they work on getting out of poverty. They have access to comprehensive services at the local, state and national level.

“We have some success stories,” she said.