Head Start gets a helping hand

A partnership between Atholton High students, children leads to fun, learning

April 08, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Standing in an Atholton High School English classroom, senior Juliet Han held up a small book titled When I Grow Up and said, "When I grow up, I want to be a teacher."

A tiny voice piped up from the back of the room.

"But you're already grown up!" said one of the two dozen preschool-age Head Start children sitting at the desks, their feet dangling off the too-high chairs.

The combination of teenagers and tots is at the heart of a bond growing between about 500 Atholton students and the 36 Head Start children who attend classes in Howard County's Harriet Tubman High School building a few dozen yards away.

Just before 2 nearly every Wednesday afternoon, a line of 3- and 4-year-olds eagerly walk from their two classrooms across a grassy lawn to Atholton, at the edge of Columbia's Hickory Ridge village.

Inside, high school students wait, almost as excited as the youngsters who are coming to see their big friends for a half-hour of fun and learning.

"I just love working with kids. It's what I do best, I think," said a smiling Han, a cheerleader and member of the school's Future Educators of America.

"They're so cute," said Katie Park, 17.

But there's more to it than just a short weekly session.

The high school students have virtually adopted the neighboring Head Start program. In December, students and teachers at Atholton collected more than $1,000 worth of toys, clothes and food for three of the least fortunate children's families. Head Start is a federally funded preschool program designed to get children from low-income families ready for public school. In Howard, 264 children participate.

The Atholton students have donated children's books and plan to set up a lending library for Head Start parents, and they've arranged to help buy five computers and three printers from Columbia's nonprofit Lazarus Foundation, which refurbishes used machines, to build a computer lab for the children. This summer, when public school is out, the Head Start children will have educational packages to work on with their parents until the Atholton students return in August.

What began with one student volunteering with Head Start now involves students from 14 Atholton after-school clubs: National Honor Society, the Marine Science Club, both the French and the Spanish National Honor Society chapters, the Art Club, the Red Cross Club, the Tennis Club, Dance Class, Future Business Leaders of America, the Photography Club, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Students Helping Other People, Future Educators of America and the school's annual holiday concert group.

In addition, psychology students at Atholton are using the Head Start school as a laboratory for their third-period class four days a week, doing academics, art, physical education, music and dance activities with the youngsters.

"I think it's a great thing. Both ages get to interact with each other," said Erica Webster, 31, a Head Start parent of 3-year old twin sons Elijah and Isaiah Lindsey.

Mary Brzezinski, a work-study coordinator at Atholton who helped arrange the program, said the partnership was born last fall, when Atholton's theme for hallway decorations was children's things. One hall featured elaborate decorations of the Wizard of Oz, while another did Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Brzezinski, who had one student volunteering at Head Start, talked to Atholton Principal Constance Lewis about bringing the little ones over to see the hallways.

Lewis agreed and pulled candy off the wall decorations to give to the children when they visited.

"I thought, this is just a natural thing. We went over the next day and said, `We would like to adopt you.' From that moment on, it has been [high-school]-kid driven," she said.

"The little ones love to come here because we have so much happening here, and it doesn't cost any money. I've been teaching a long time. It's one of the most profound, touching things I've seen in my career," she said.

The children love being with the teens because they look up to them, Brzezinski said.

"You can see the kids feel that somebody cares about them. They ask every day, `Can we go to the big school?'" said Head Start teacher Bernice Parker.

Some say other benefits could result from the partnership.

"I think that because it's student-run and run by a very competent group of students, it will serve as a model" for links between high schools and Head Start programs, said Jenna Smith, Howard's acting Head Start director.

The county's two other Head Start sites, in Owen Brown and Ellicott City, are too big (seven classrooms each) and too far from high schools to duplicate the Atholton-Tubman link. But other high schools could help Head Start's families, Smith said, by arranging field trips and helping with books, computers and activities.

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