Preschool a head start for children |

Preschool a head start for children

Program for kids of low-income families finds new home at local school

Collin Smith

— Preschool is important for children and every child should have access to it.

That’s the philosophy for the federal Head Start program, and now Judi Whilden and the teachers at Sunrise Kids Preschool and Child Care, 700 School St.

Beginning Tuesday, Sunrise Kids is the new home for the local Head Start program, which provides children of low-income families with preschool. It also offers afternoon meals, financial assistance for dental and medical needs, parental support and special education services.

“I jumped on this because I think it is a great opportunity for the children and the community,” Whilden said. “The purpose for all this is to offer quality programs to parents for their children even if they can’t afford them.”

Head Start came to Moffat County about 10 years ago, Western Slope Area Manager Judy Lopez said. Northwest Colorado demonstrated a need for the program, and that need continues today.

It had to shut its own location’s doors not because it lost funding, but because of the area’s employment shortages, and the national situation regarding early childhood care workers.

“In the last few years, it has just been really hard to find qualified staff and teachers,” Lopez said. “We’re now mandated to only hire teachers with a college degree in early childhood education.”

Head Start would also lose qualified teachers each year to a school district capable of paying a better salary, Lopez said, which isn’t the fault of the teachers or the Moffat County School District.

“Around the country, early childhood teachers are not paid what they’re worth,” she said. “And the school district, just like us, is looking for the best qualified teachers they can find.”

Sunrise Kids has the staff Lopez wants, she said.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children accredited the preschool and child care center from 2000 through 2006, which demonstrates its curriculum excellence, Lopez said.

Whilden decided not to pursue accreditation this year because of the designation’s prohibitive costs. She is pursuing other certifications through different organizations.

Due to her program’s recognition, Lopez approached Whilden, who accepted after consulting with her staff, which showed excitement at the possibilities.

“I’m excited and a little bit nervous,” Sunrise Kids teacher Kimberly Swenson said.

Swenson has taught preschool for 29 years, and is in her fourth year at Sunrise Kids. She teaches English language skills to her students who are just beginning to understand their letters, she said.

With Head Start children, who are predominantly Hispanic in Moffat County, having two languages just makes the children more interested, she added.

“I don’t know a lot about Hispanic culture, I’ve never been exposed to their language, but I am excited to learn,” Swenson said. “And it’s always fun with more kids.”

The Sunrise Kids program is based on English immersion so that Hispanic speakers can learn English at a young age. Sunrise employs a bilingual teacher to ease the transition for children and parents.

“I think this will be great to help bring the community together,” Swenson said. “It will help expose the kids to different cultures and friends they may not have met if it was all separate still. It will broaden their horizons and expose them to more of life.”

The important thing for Whilden and the Sunrise Kids teachers is to maintain their program and philosophy, they said.

Every child is a Sunrise Kids child, regardless of whether they are enrolled through Head Start, the Moffat County School District scholarship program, the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program or traditional tuition.

“The only difference here is the hours they can stay,” Whilden said. “We give every child the opportunity to succeed in kindergarten. We do not want to differentiate the children. They are all Sunrise children.”

Parents interested in the Head Start program, Sunrise Kids preschool or child care should call Whilden at 824-9307.

Collin Smith can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 209, or

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