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Partnership Between Head Start and Jones County School District Offers Preschool in Small Town

The Head Start program serves pre-school kids and their families across the country. It’s often one of the only preschool options in rural areas. The goal? To help get kids from low-income households ready for school. However, in one central South Dakota town, a partnership between Head Start and the local school district is providing  preschool for any child.

Murdo is a town of about 500 people. It’s here that the Jones County School District and the Oahe Head Start program have teamed up. Misti Chester has been the local Head Start teacher for nearly fifteen years. Her classroom is in a district building. And she says you’d need to drive at least  25 miles to find another Head Start class. 

Chester says Head Start provides important services in rural areas. 

“Within our town we have limited number of resources for daycares and so there really isn’t any other opportunities available at this time.”

The play-based curriculum helps kids develop social skills. When weather allows, the students play outside. In the winter months, they can play in the school gymnasium just next door. 

Lorrie Esmay is the superintendent of the Jones County Schools. She also serves on the Oahe Head Start Board. She says playtime and other classroom activities--like story time or puzzles--help students learn to work together and regulate their emotions. Offering these lessons early on for children, can enhance  what they learn at home and keep them on track once it’s time for kindergarten.

“Just all those things we just take for granted, that we just think kids just know how to do. Some of them just have to have it modeled to them and taught to them. So that’s why I think it’s so important to have early childhood education.”

There’s also plenty of early intervention for kids who might need some extra help. Teacher Misti Chester does assessments four times a year—looking at students’ motor, cognitive and social skills. She says partnering with the school district adds to what she can offer. 

“We have the speech teacher, she comes over and does services with the ones that need some speech, and then the special ed teacher also comes over and helps with some of those that just need that little extra boost.”

That help can be extra one-on-one time during class, or resources Chester sends home for parents. 

Head Start enrollment generally depends on parents’ income status. But there are exceptions. Jones County--like many counties in South Dakota--is considered medically underserved. That’s a federal designation for counties with too few primary care providers...high infant mortality rates...high poverty rates...or a large elderly population. Misti Chester explains that designation  allows some flexibility in Head Start’s income guidelines.

“So we are allowed to have fifty percent of our kids under income and fifty percent of them over income. So that helps us to be able to allow for the opportunity to serve more.” 

The partnership between  Head Start and the local schools also means flexibility in class sizes. Superintendent Esmay says Head Start is limited to 20 students per class, but the school helps with any overflow.

“But you know, Miss Misti and I work pretty closely together to make sure that nobody is turned away. You know we might only have some kids be able to attend two days, but we want them here for two days. So nobody will ever be turned away.”

This year, 21 students are enrolled in Murdo’s Head Start preschool. Superintendent Esmay says she wants to be able to provide early education to as many families as they can. 

“We, the school district, will just provide that early education as best we can until our funding is no longer there. But working with Head Start allows this to happen. Without Head Start we couldn’t have this.”

Esmay keeps tabs on state-wide conversations about preschool. But because Head Start is a federal program, she’s most concerned with national conversations about funding. 

“It’s just a matter of getting the federal dollars down to the state level to go out to the local districts to help them. I don’t think you’d find anybody who’s gonna say early childhood education is not important. It’s just a matter of getting, I think, the federal dollars here.”

Teacher Misti Chester agrees. If anything, she wishes Head Start would expand it’s income guidelines to accept  more students.  

“You know, every year we hear, you know, they want to start cut funding for Head Start programs, and we just keeping praying they don’t, because for some of these rural areas it’s our only opportunities.”

For kids who think they’re just playing with friends and singing songs--preschool programs are really an opportunity to hit the ground running in kindergarten and beyond. 


Regional Health supports Education and Healthcare reporting on SDPB.