GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - New numbers reveal Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation. So, what does that mean for children in those households? How can their parents afford to give them the head start they need in life by enrolling them in pre-K programs, when Mississippi doesn't offer state funded pre-K? There is hope, and it is called Head Start.
"It started as a project. It was never intended to run 40 plus years," says Linda Harvey-Irvin, Director of Head Start in Harrison County.
Head Start caters to preschool aged children, mostly from low income families. It was originally created to help break the "cycle of poverty."
"It was a given that children could not learn if they were hungry, if they were sick," Irvin explains. "And so this summer project was to be the beginning of something big, and it really became something bigger than anyone could have ever imagined."
Head Start will soon serve almost 1,400 children in Harrison County. And the staff provide so much more than just an education. Children also receive attention for medical, dental, and mental health needs. But most importantly, Head Start addresses family and community partnerships.
"That's the cornerstone of Head Start," says Irvin. "To get families involved in the development of their children, the socialization of children, to prepare to learn."
And here's the amazing thing: Head Start doesn't cost parents who qualify for the program a dime. It's all federally funded. However, the demand in Mississippi, a state with the highest poverty rate in the country, is always high. And that creates a challenge.
Irvin tells WLOX, "We're only funded to serve that 1,368 children. There are other children in the area who need assistance with preschool."
That's an area of concern for many early childhood advocates, who realize giving children a head start in education can be crucial to their success later in life. The main goal is to make sure children under five have everything they need to grow up happy, healthy and ready to learn.
"Head Start can't do it all," says Irvin. "We do a great job and I know that we do, but there's more to be done."
Head Start isn't just for children of low income families. To see if you qualify, call the Gulf Coast Community Development Action Agency at (228) 896-1411.
The last of four Head Start centers to be rebuilt after Katrina opens September 29th. The Dr. Gilbert Mason, Sr. Center is on Popps Ferry Road in Biloxi.