DOVER – With Mikie Sherrill watching, the students sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” – in English and then in Spanish.
The singers were less than 5-years-old.
Welcome to Head Start, a federal preschool program for low income students that is a lasting and favorable legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
The congresswoman from CD-11 spent Tuesday morning touring the facility and visiting two classes – one for those under 3 and the other for “older students,” some of whom were 4. At one point, Sherrill was impressed that one of the students voluntarily cleaned up his plate and glass after eating lunch.
But this was not just a social visit.
The federal budget year ends on Sept. 30 and that can mean trouble on a number of fronts.
One problem is that pandemic relief funds that supported preschool are expiring.
Sherrill is trying to counter that with a bill called “The Child Care for Every Community Act.” Among other things it would limit a family’s expense for child care to 7 percent of family income. It would also strive to create more preschool options using the Head Start model.
Sherrill, a mother of four, has talked often about expanding child care opportunities since her election to Congress in 2018. In fact, one of her first visits after winning election was to a Head Start center.
The congresswoman related a story dating back to her work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office regarding prisoner reentry into society.
She said she wanted to know at what age the education system should try to reach children before they take a wrong turn. She said she was thinking this would be in middle school.
Sherrill realized that working with and educating children before they even get to kindergarten is vitally important.
That is the mission of Head Start, and one that is badly-needed, officials said, even in a county as affluent as Morris. Its affluence does not cover all.
Dover is a largely Latino community and most of the youngsters arrive with little or scant knowledge of English.
That’s not a problem. It’s an opportunity.
Besides learning such social skills as getting along with – and communicating with – each other, students learn both English and how to keep proficiency in Spanish.
“By the time they graduate, they will be speaking English,” Sherrill said.
In this case, “graduation,” means off to kindergarten, where Head Start youngsters should be at least on par with their peers, some of whom may have attended private preschool.
Today’s congressional visit was a festive occasion that brought together the local superintendent of schools, the president of County College of Morris and Robert Grant, a long-time volunteer with the Head Start Board.
But it all wasn’t fun and games.
Besides the pandemic related cut and Sherrill’s bill, Congress needs to pass a resolution to continue funding the government.
At the moment, Republicans, who control the House, albeit narrowly, are divided about how to do that.
Sherrill spoke of coming chaos and then, referring to her Navy background, said she sees “rough shoals” ahead.