WORTHINGTON — Seven colorful classrooms with desks, bookcases with books and bins with toys stand ready to welcome preschoolers to Head Start Sept. 3 at its new location along Worthington’s Pleasant Avenue.
At 14,000 square feet, the new facility is nearly 10 times larger than Head Start’s downtown spaces. The building allows for the program to offer all-day preschool for children ages 3-4, and includes a cafeteria so meals can be prepared on site. There are also two fenced-in playgrounds, one to the north and one to the south of the building.
Head Start Director Lori Gunnink said with the expanded space, the agency has increased its occupancy license from 37 children to 140 children at a time.
“We’re not necessarily adding any more children. What we’re adding is full-day programming,” Gunnink said.
The change came about when Head Start announced new performance standards in 2016, giving individual sites until 2021 to begin offering 120 hours of class time to preschoolers per year.
The new routine at the Worthington Head Start will include 146 days of school, at 7.5 hours per day Tuesdays through Fridays. As of this week, 56 children are enrolled full-time, with 51 children to attend class four hours per day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
With a staff of 41, the agency is in the process of adding more bilingual employees. It continues to search for bus drivers, bus riders, classroom aides and front desk help.
A new feature of the greatly expanded Head Start building is a SEEDs (Social, Emotional Enhancement and Development) classroom, created in partnership with the mental health agency, to focus on strengthening social and emotional skills of children.
“Studies have shown social and emotional skills are stronger indicators of success than academics,” Gunnink said, adding that Head Start staff are like life coaches that help the entire family succeed.
Enrollment in Head Start is limited to those who meet specific qualifications. The program caters to low-income households, and applications are ranked through a points system.
“We’re required to serve the highest-needs children,” Gunnink said. “We take applications all year long and, if anyone is interested, they can call and set up an appointment.
“At our funding level, we’re currently full, but we do have a wait list because we’re to maintain full enrollment all year.”
Head Start has long had a need for more space — even before Gunnink joined the agency in March 2012.
She's excited about the new space to serve the community’s young learners, and although there are still many boxes to unpack in the offices to get ready for opening day, she’s happy the moving process is almost finished.
“It’s been about a month of moving in — in addition to doing training and all of the other operational (tasks),” she said.
Gunnink originally wrote a grant to fund the new facility in April 2016. That funding was awarded in February 2017, but authorization to spend the funds wasn’t granted until May 2018. Construction finally started that June, and Head Start received its certificate of occupancy just last week.
Though the classrooms are ready, there are still some projects left to complete. For example, Head Start is still waiting for the new playground equipment to arrive and be installed. Gunnink said the fenced-in playgrounds won’t be usable until October to allow the newly seeded grass to get established. In the meantime, the children will be able to play in the existing equipment in the city’s Pleasant Park.
When the weather isn’t conducive for children to play outside, the multi-functional design of the cafeteria means tables can be folded into the wall to make room for indoor recreation. Gunnink said the space will also be used for staff training.
Adjacent to the cafeteria is a commercial kitchen, where staff will cook meals for the children — a first for the Worthington Head Start program.
“We had been catering from District 518, but as their numbers grew, it was harder for them to do so,” Gunnink said. “We’re kind of excited to do that on our own, too.”
With the anticipation of rooms filled with preschoolers, Gunnink has had time to envision possibilities for the remaining green space that surrounds the new building. Eventually, she’d like to see some of the land developed for a community garden. She also would love to have a building to house the Head Start buses, but that would require the acquisition of more land.
Head Start provides busing for all of its students. With its new location being a little further from the downtown core, Gunnink said it will be transporting, rather than walking, students to the library and to tour sites such as the Worthington Fire Department and the local hospital.
“With the library, they do story time or activities and now we will do busing for that,” Gunnink said. “We have really good community partners that are supportive of the children.”