Celebrating 50 Years
The Women behind the success of Yellowstone County Head Start
The hallways of the Head Start building, which sits across the street North Park, echo with the sounds of children’s laughter. Apprehension in the first few days of school has given way to excitement as the students acclimated over the school year. As each family arrives, children release the hand of the one that brought them and race to the smiling faces and encouraging words of the teachers and staff. It’s easy to see that children and teachers alike are excited to get their day going.
For 50 years, the Head Start Program in Billings has provided education, health, nutrition, social and other services for low-income children in Yellowstone County. The mission here is simple — to enhance the social and cognitive development of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.
“Our goal at Head Start is to get children school ready,” says Janice King, executive director of Head Start. “We want to be a positive influence in the trajectory of a child’s education.”
Janice oversees a staff of 105 who help educate 360 children at four locations throughout Billings. She’s been with the Head Start program for 17 years, and executive director for two. Through it all, she keeps tabs on an annual federally funded budget of close to $5 million and in-kind donations of almost $1 million.
“We have a lot going on all the time,” Janice says. “I’m very proud of the staff we have and the role we’ve played in the lives of our students and their families.”
Since Yellowstone County’s Head Start began in 1972, Janice estimates that around 15,000 children have taken part in the program. Many of the staff have been with Head Start for years, some for decades.
Across town at the Terry Park location, teacher Annette Kuzma’s colorful classroom is filled with countless ways to capture a child’s curiosity. Walls are covered with bright letters, numbers and pictures. Tables are piled with wooden blocks, puzzles and books. In a corner is a cozy chair and a soft blanket on top of a welcoming floor rug.
“When I started with Head Start, it was back before cell phones and computers,” she says, reminiscing over her 31-year career. “We wrote everything by hand.”
Today, communication with the parents is largely by text and email. “I remember visiting with parents about how to teach their children in their homes,” she says. “You can make a lesson out of about anything. I’d make suggestions about the things in their home that they could incorporate into a learning experience. Measuring cups for counting, pots and pans for making music, studying colors and textures — there’s so much at hand.”
Annette still believes in using just about anything to teach her students and her room shows it. Tucked into cubbyholes are markers and crayons, but also cast-away tiles and blocks that were headed for the garbage before she snatched them up.
“I have struggling students and sometimes I have to really think out of the box to get them to understand,” Annette says. “They get enough of the ‘You can’t do that,’ so I concentrate on what they can do. It’s physically hard at times and the days are long, but when one of the kids finally ‘gets it,’ well, that’s what I love and why I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Serena Henson-Ramos is a family advocate for Head Start at the Terry Park location, and in that capacity, she’s a liaison between families and services. She keeps abreast of things going on in the community from which parents might benefit and makes sure that the families are in the know.
“I act as a case manager for the families,” she says. “I do everything from greeting in the morning to assessments to family support and searching for community programs.”
Serena has been with Head Start only a short time. She has a bachelor’s degree in human services and an associate degree in rehabilitations and related services. She’s starting her master’s degree this summer to continue her education to become a counselor. Her education started as a Head Start student more than 20 years ago.
“Mom was a teenage mother,” Serena says. “I was in Head Start as a 4-year-old.”
Smiling, Annette chimed in, “And I was her teacher!”
Though neither woman remembers too much of the specifics of that year, Serena says it enabled her mother to continue with school. She finished high school and eventually went on to college to receive her degree.
“Head Start helped Mom during a critical time in her life and as a mother,” Serena says. “The hardest part of my job is watching people who need the help but don’t get it. We can only do so much and to watch the potential of someone not be met is very difficult.”
Still, both women agree, the positive stories far outweigh the negative ones.
“It’s awesome to see struggling parents grow and take the steps and the initiative to advocate for their kids,” Serena says. “That’s what makes me appreciate my job.”
Back at the North Park location, Julie Carlos remembers in 1988 when she was working at a daycare close to the Head Start building on Sixth Avenue North. She would walk several of the daycare children to the building for them to attend class. One day she arrived at work to closed doors. The daycare had shut down without warning.
“I was familiar enough with Head Start, I thought why not apply there?” Julie says. She did apply and 33 years later, she’s still employed by Head Start and still at the North Park location.
“I started out as a bus aide,” she says, “Then I got my CDL and drove the bus. I also filled in for lunch help, in the classroom and the office.” Julie started working in the office in 2000. As a data specialist, it’s her job to keep records of each of the students.
“Things have changed since I started that job,” Julie says. “We keep extensive files on every child, and it was all done by hand and filed. Tracking hundreds of students takes a lot of paperwork and a lot of filing.” Today, all those files are computerized, making Julie’s job not only more efficient, but much easier.
Since her first days on the job, she’s watched hundreds of children come through the doors of Head Start.
“It’s so fun to see them in the mornings,” she says. “They love coming here, it’s a joy to me to see them and hear them. Every now and then I will see a former student at the grocery store, or out somewhere in public and it just warms my heart to have them come up and visit with me.”
Amanda Stonerock works part time for Head Start as the director of donor advising and she remembers attending Head Start as a young child growing up in Butte. She believes it helped prepare her for school and so strongly believes in the program that she is passionate about helping them with fundraising and grant writing.
In fact, shortly after Amanda began working with Head Start last fall, she was able to help them secure a grant that provided 200 electronic tablets for the children. She also helped line up 22 months of free wi-fi service, screen protectors and cases for each tablet.
“The tablets are exciting,” Amanda says. “They’re just another step toward getting them ready for school.”
While Amanda is helping dream up ways to celebrate Yellowstone County Head Start’s 50 years, she says she never loses her focus on helping to provide the best for kids in need here in our community.
“These kids are going to be our future,” Amanda says. “We’re trying to do what we can to ensure that they have every advantage.”
HELP HEAD START CELEBRATE
50th Anniversary Celebration
The 50th anniversary celebration will be held Friday, May 20, at Zoo Montana from 4 to 8 p.m. The family event will include food trucks, inflatables, kid’s games and live music, along with several featured speakers and presentations. Open to the public, the event is free for Head Start staff and current Head Start families.