After being displaced by Hurricane Katrina and relocating to Gulfport, the Head Start program finally reopened in east Biloxi this month. The sound of children learning and laughing is once again filling the halls of a familiar campus on Division Street.
"So I'm excited! We're meeting the needs of not only the children, but the parents and the community," said Dr. Barbara Coatney.
Coatney is the new Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency. She said when Hurricane Katrina destroyed three Head Start centers in Biloxi, the program relocated to two Biloxi schools. But since 2008, the little ones have been bused to the Harry C. Tartt location in Gulfport.
"We were having to transport our children 24 miles every day to Gulfport. It's really hard putting three and four year olds on a bus. It was hard for parents to pick up their children in Gulfport, especially if they did not have transportation," said Coatney.
Coatney said there was a strong push to get Head Start back to Biloxi.
"The staff told me that Nichols was vacant, and I needed to work on it, and that's what I did," she said.
The agency signed an 18 month lease with the Biloxi School District to use one wing at Nichols Elementary. Nichols closed as a school three years ago. Now, 140-preschoolers from low-income families are using seven classrooms. They also have access to the playground, gym, and cafeteria. Educators said it's a good partnership.
"We're working with Dr. Coatney and her team to train teachers. We're working together on the common core curriculum, what it means for three and four year olds. Of course, that's going to segue right into what we need them to know when they get to kindergarten," said Dr. Janice Wilson, Biloxi Schools Assistant Superintendent.
Both sides hope to extend their lease for many more years, so Head Start can stay in Biloxi for good.
"There's no funding out for a permanent structure. Also, the ability to find land is also an issue. I would say at this point, we're going to be renting," said Coatney.
All the classes at Head Start in Biloxi are filled, and there is a long waiting list. There will be open registration starting March first. Along with Head Start, the Boys and Girls Club of the Gulf Coast is also using Nichols for its after-school programs.
"With a building this beautiful, it deserves to have the pitter patter of children and the sounds and the excitement and the voices of students in the hallways," said Wilson. "It's wonderful to be used as an educational endeavor. So we're taking care of the needs of children."
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