Readiness for early learning is making determined progress in St. Landry Parish despite a number of obstacles, according to two administrators of the Head Start program.

Head Start Principal June Inhern and Pre-K Supervisor Melissa Arnaud provided school officials last week with an end-of-year overview of the Head Start program which is in its fourth year of leadership by the school district.

The school district oversees the operation of 10 funded Head Start centers in 12 parish municipalities in addition to 13 pre-kindergarten programs at St. Landry public school sites.

Head Start assistance is available in Saint-Landry for children from birth to 4 years old.

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“We face many challenges, but we don’t allow them to stop us from making progress,” Inhern told an academic committee on Wednesday.

Inhern, who has served as parish superintendent since the parish secured funding to operate Head Start, specifically pointed to the lack of consistency in retaining qualified Head Start teachers, the sporadic presence of staff, the need for greater involvement of parents in some aspect of their children’s learning, a need for classroom instructors to become certified as well as increasing the number of students attending Head Start classes throughout the day.

Results of state tests for knowledge of the alphabet for students from birth to 1 year show significant gains in the areas of linguistic, social, emotional and physical development. Fifty-seven percent of students tested showed an above-average growth rate score in literacy and math, according to the scores.

Tests for the same age group, however, showed that more attention needed to be paid to cognitive development, according to the scores.

Growth test results for 1- and 2-year-olds showed the most impressive individual growth across all test areas. Literary scores for this age group were 91%.

Language and cognitive development scores for 2- and 3-year-olds were just over 50%, while physical growth, math and literacy scores hovered around 80%.

Areas of concern and improvement include knowledge of the Head Start alphabet, while student comprehension has reached 73% of the benchmark, test indicators reveal.

“A child’s ability to recognize sounds and letters will tell if they are ready for kindergarten,” Inhern told the committee.

Overall, Inhern said, test scores and benchmarks for the Head Start program are improving every year.

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What needs improvement

Inhern said the attempt to improve alphabet recognition scores can be attributed to the need for better teacher and student attendance.

“What we’re seeing over the past two years is the product of absenteeism,” Inhern said. “Part of that is due to COVID, but we have no consistency with our presence.”

Head Start Director June Inhern

Students also need extended reinforcement from the Head Start class at home, Inhern said.

“We need more parental involvement. They (the parents) have to help us. This can be done by reading to their children and working with them,” Inhern said. “We use letters for our 4 year olds and we need to encourage our parents to spend more time with their children in language comprehension and preparation.”

Inhern said some parents have a tendency to pull children out of Head Start classrooms before a full day of classes is over. Afternoon class attendance shows that most Head Start centers teach fewer students during the latter part of the school day.

“It has a big impact on what we do and (the lack of all-day attendance) is something I plan to stop,” Inhern added.

Board member Mary Ellen Donatto said it’s crucial that more Head Start teachers seek to become state-certified instructors.

Donatto said it is also evident that Head Start teachers have the opportunity to be certified and are encouraged to continue their education.

Inhern added in his closing remarks that there is also a need to continue adding new students to the Head Start program and to continue to educate parents to help with alphabet recognition.

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Overall participation

Inhern said St. Landry is funded for 664 Head Start students each year.

Records provided by the school district, however, show that last year the program fell short of that expected August-May attendance figure. Head Start still needs 47 children to meet the funding quota required by Head Start officials according to district data provided by Inhern to the committee.

The highest Head Start attendance this year was in April when 622 students attended classes.

Full enrollment has been reached in the early start program for children up to age three, with 124 students fully funded for four months this year, Inhern pointed out.