Serena Wade-Harrington, of Essex, and her family know all about the high cost of childcare in Vermont.

Wade-Harrington worked until she had her second child, Azariah. After crunching the numbers, she realized that if she continued work and enrolled her kids in childcare, she would hardly have any take-home pay.

She opted to become a stay-at-home mom instead, but she still wanted early educational opportunities for her children.

Wade-Harrington entered Azariah into the Essex Westford School District’s preschool lottery for a spot in the Head Start program. Azariah’s name was drawn, and Wade-Harrington’s family has been connected to the service ever since.

The Head Start Program and Early Head Start at Home Visiting Program provide early learning opportunities for children from low-income families. Both are federally funded and come at no cost to families, Paul Behrman, director of Champlain Valley Head Start, said.

Early Head Start accepts applications from pregnant moms and families with children ages 3 and younger.

The programs support children’s development through health services, education and family services, Alex Tursi a public relations specialist working with Head Start, said.

Wade-Harrington has lived in Vermont with her husband, Free Harrington, for 20 years. The two have five children: Elijah, 18, who serves in the military; Azariah, 11; Salome, 8; Keziah, 5; and Junia, 6 months.

Free Harrington works at Edlund, a kitchen equipment company.

When the couple’s fourth child, Keziah, was born, the Head Start staff recommended they enroll her in the home visiting program.

Wade-Harrington applied with a little reservation.

“Initially there’s that panic attack, ‘Oh someone’s coming to my house, hopefully they’re not judging me,’” she said. “Once you get over that, it’s a lot more relaxing.”

In normal, non-pandemic circumstances, she said, the program helps her children with in-person relationship-building. Usually, a home visitor starts each week by calling and checking in, then, later in the week comes to the family’s home to share an activity with the child and check in on their nutrition and development.

“It’s kind of a partnership where they’re helping you keep track of things. They want to know what your interests are for helping your child grow and they give you resources to go with what your plan is,” Wade-Harrington said.

Before the pandemic it was also an opportunity to meet other families, with a monthly in-person get-together for all enrolled families, she said.

It’s a little different this year without the in-person interactions.

“It’s definitely a lot harder to get to know someone over the phone and through Zoom. It still works out though,” she said.

Ellen Post is a home visitor. She starts her week by calling families to check in and ask about their needs. She then connects with them via Zoom to engage the kids in a lesson, check on their development and help families set wellness goals.

Her current families like music, she said, meaning learning through song and dance. Post helps families use what they have around the house as learning tools, sometimes using pots and pans as instruments, or grabbing a book off the shelf to read together.

“Everyone’s been stuck at home for nine months now, so we’re just trying to keep things as exciting as we can.” Post said. “Reminding families of all opportunities that they have during the day to use as learning experiences.”

Anything from making a meal with kids to brushing their teeth can be a chance to educate and engage, she said.

“The real key for this is to ensure that children are meeting those developmental milestones that are important,” said Tursi.

Post works with parents and guardians to make a wellness plan for the entire family — not just youngest members.

“These programs are not just child-centered curriculum. It’s really a family program, and the goal is to empower families to develop healthily. It’s as much for the parents and caregivers, honestly, as it is for the children,” Tursi said.

The Head Start Home Visiting Program serves 81 families across northwest Vermont, Behrman said. There are 33 slots in Franklin/Grand Isle Counties, 29 slots in Chittenden County and 19 slots in Addison County, he said. The early education branch started in 2010.

A Michigan-based psychologist, David Weikart, began studying early education in the 1960s, following subjects for decades after to see its benefits. At age 40, participants who attended the study’s preschool program were more likely to have graduated from high school, more likely to hold a job and have higher earnings and committed fewer crimes, according to HighScope, an organization that works with teachers and programs studying classroom practice and child outcomes.

The local home visiting programs are ideal for children in need of one-on-one support with an early educator in partnership with their parent or guardian, Behrman said. It can help families with transportation challenges, and kids who wouldn’t learn best in a group-based learning setting, he said. It can also be a good alternative to childcare center-based programs.

“We all know the exponential cost of childcare and so for some families that’s just not a feasible option for early education. This is a great way to still access that and to give your child a head start in educating and making sure that they’re headed on the right path,” Post said.

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