When Sheila Bertrand offered Clearview Elementary School as the permanent location for the county's proposed Early Head Start program two years ago, she wasn't thinking about making history — she just wanted to help the community.
"It was just the perfect bookend at our school," the former Clearview Principal said at the school's Early Head Start ribbon-cutting event Monday. "We had some space, and with juggling we could make it happen — it's providing an education for young children."
Bertrand, who was assistant principal and then principal at Clearview for 17 years, said she was quick to offer the school because of the program's importance to area children.
"These are Herndon students that are having the babies," she said, adding the program is a great way to bring the children into the school system starting from infancy.
The program replicates the county's Head Start program, which assists 3- to 5-year old children from economically disadvantaged families, except Early Head Start focuses on pregnant mothers and children up to three years old.
"It's an effective anti-poverty program and child development program," said Julie Shuell, director of Northern Virginia Family Service Early Head Start program. "With individual families we have seen a tremendous success rate with the children."
The program serves families of infants, toddlers — including children with disabilities — and expectant parents in the Reston and Herndon areas based on income eligibility.
"IT'S BEEN FOUND that children's most rapid brain development and physical development is before they are three [years old]," said Shuell, who directs Early Head Start programs across the Northern Virginia region. "Head Start is a great program, but for many — they're so behind — that a year of Head Start doesn't catch them up."
Gwen Freeman, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Public School Early Head Start program, said the school district initiated the program to take a proactive approach to parenting.
"The earlier the intervention, the more powerful the intervention — and the more lasting," said Freeman.
She explained the county applied for a federal grant to help fund the program, adding they were one of three districts in the area eligible based on federal poverty assessments.
"The Reston - Herndon area had a number of children living in impoverished conditions," said Freeman, adding as a grant requirement, 10 percent of enrollment will be disabled and special needs children.
"This is the first [Early Head Start program] in a public school," said Freeman of the history being made in Fairfax County and Herndon.
THE PROGRAM OFFERS two, year-long options.
One is home-based where families will receive in-home services and visitations from Early Head Start staff as well as assistance from outside resources.
The second is center-based where families can bring their children to Clearview from 6:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week.
But, even with both options, unfortunately not every family in need will be assisted.
"There is a tremendous amount — a number of agencies — that contact us saying they are at or slightly over their limit and are asking us to enroll the children," said Freeman of the increasing demand for Early Head Start programs.
The Fairfax County Early Head Start program has 16 spaces for their center-based services and 24 spaces in the county for the home-based option, all of which are filled.
"My waiting list numbers go up each year," said Shuell of her centers throughout Northern Virginia. "The need is tremendous and there's just not resources out there for impoverished families."
Judith Rosen, director of the Fairfax County Office for Children, said she thinks locating the program in a public school, as opposed to an independent center, is a great benefit to the families being helped.
"Families will feel more comfortable in the school and they will gradually work themselves into the school," said Rosen, adding the hope is more children will be able to enter school at the proper level because of the program.
Freeman said, through the program, children will receive proper nutrition and developmental skills while their parents work with mental health and child development experts.
"Pregnant women will receive assistance to make sure they have a healthy pregnancy," said Freeman, adding they will also receive post-natal care.
"Many of these parents themselves were not raised with proper development, so they don't know how to parent," said Shuell about the parenting education benefits. "If you don't learn to be a parent, there is only so much a child will be able to do."
Elaine Wellner, current Clearview principal, said although she wasn't there when the school was chosen as the location, she is excited to initiate the young children into the school district.
"My philosophy is that we are all here for all children in our school," said Wellner. "Now we have the honor of having children from infancy to age three at our school."
Although now teaching at a juvenile detention center in Culpepper, Bertrand said she is excited to know the two Clearview classrooms she offered will provide continuing education for these children.
"It's wonderful to see it all come to be and to know that these young children will be able to take advantage of the program and state-of-the-art parenting," said Bertrand.