Keeping a young learner safe

Eastern Oregon Head Start teacher Jamey Olsen adjusts a helmet for student Afzal Abdullah during recess Wednesday morning, Feb. 26, 2020, in La Grande.

LA GRANDE — Eastern Oregon University Head Start may make a historic jump during the leap year.

Eastern Oregon University Head Start is preparing to apply for a $1.2 million grant from the state's Preschool Promise program. The funds would allow the local Head Start to boost the number of children it serves in Union County by about 60% starting this fall.

The increase would be one of the highest since EOU Head Start began five decades ago, said director Robert Kleng. 

Eastern Oregon University Head Start serves 80 children at its La Grande center, 17 at its Elgin center, 20 at its Union center and 60 in Baker City. Should Head Start receive the Preschool Promise grant, Kleng said, these numbers would rise by 40 in La Grande and about 17 in Elgin, 20 in Union and 40 in Baker City.

The addition of 40 slots in La Grande also depends on a big helping hand from the La Grande School District, Kleng said. The school district has offered to renovate two modular units and provide those for Head Start to use as additional classrooms. The modulars are on K Avenue at the site of the old Central Elementary School, which the district tore down about four years ago.

"This is huge," he said. "We would have the operational funding (with the grant) but not the space without help from the La Grande School District."

EOU Head Start also is working with the Elgin, Union and Baker school districts to obtain additional space to accommodate more students. 

The Preschool Promise grant comes from the Student Success Act, which the Legislature passed in 2019. When fully implemented, the Student Success Act is expected to invest $2 billion in Oregon education every two years. The education act's revenue come from the tax on gross receipts for businesses with at least $1 million in sales.

Kleng said the additional funding would allow Eastern Oregon University Head Start to serve a greater range of children in terms of their families' socioeconomic status. Presently, only children from families at or below certain income levels can receive services from EOU Head Start in La Grande. However, the Preschool Promise would mean all children would be eligible to attend Head Start classes, for which there is no charge. 

"Family income would no longer be a barrier," Kleng said.

He added that "research shows repeatedly" that children benefit when they are in classrooms of students from mixed socioeconomic backgrounds partly because it gives them a broader view of the world.

Eastern Oregon University Head Start must submit its Preschool Promise grant request by April 2. Kleng said all funding that goes toward early childhood education is money well spent because it gives youngsters the skills they need to succeed. Studies show children who attend preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school.  

Kleng said James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has determined every dollar spent on early childhood education provides a return of 7-10% a year to the community because of increased school and career achievement.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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