One recent morning, teacher Myrtle Smiley served up a bowl of warm rice cereal -- and a cheery song -- for the tiniest student in her Fairfax County classroom.
"It's time for Christina to eat," Smiley sang as she guided spoonfuls of cereal into the mouth of the smiling 9-month-old girl. "It's time for Christina to eat. Hi-ho the derry-o, it's time for Christina to eat."
Allison Ribeiro teaches 14-month-old David Mateo Calbo to brush his teeth at the Early Head Start center at Herndon's Clearview Elementary.
(Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)
Christina Simon is one of 16 children enrolled in the newest Early Head Start center in Fairfax County -- the first such center located in a county public school. The federally funded program, which is open year-round and serves children who are 6 months to 3 years old, was designed to give the youngest children from low-income families access to an environment that will help their emotional, intellectual and social growth.
Rosa Simon, 29, Christina's mother, said her daughter has flourished in the few months she has been spending her weekdays at Clearview Elementary School in Herndon. Before that, Christina and her 4-year-old brother stayed with a babysitter while Simon, who is raising the children on her own, worked the cash register at a local restaurant.
Simon said that back then she knew her baby was safe and well-fed, but that was about it. Now Christina spends her days listening to songs and stories, crawling on colorful mats and interacting with other children.
"All the babysitter does is change diapers and talk to them a little bit. But here Christina talks to people, she has friends," Simon said. "What I like is, it's more than feeding and diaper-changing. It's learning."
Early Head Start, like other early childhood education programs, is intended to help ensure that children such as Christina are successful in preschool, kindergarten and beyond. The program promotes early literacy and social skills for economically disadvantaged toddlers and infants. Parents can get help finding medical care or housing and learn about nutrition.
"It's clear that beginning as early as possible is the best way to break the cycle, so that these children don't live in the same situations that their parents or grandparents did," said Gwen Freeman, Early Head Start specialist for Fairfax County schools.
Early Head Start was launched in 1995 as an addition to the Head Start program, which provides education and nutrition services to families with children ages 3 to 5.
Although the Early Head Start center at Clearview Elementary is the first to be operated by the school system, Fairfax County offers the program in three other locations: Gum Springs Glen and the Gum Springs Children's Center in the Alexandria section, and Higher Horizons Day Care Center, a private nonprofit center in the Baileys Crossroads area. In addition, Early Head Start offers a home-based option, in which trained workers make weekly visits to expectant mothers or families with young children.
Betsi Closter, director of the county government's Early Head Start program, said 212 children or pregnant mothers are currently in Early Head Start programs countywide. She said Fairfax receives $6.6 million in federal funds that cover the costs of the Early Head Start program and contribute to the Head Start program.
Freeman, who oversees Clearview's Early Head Start center, said the facility, which opened in December, has served teenage mothers who are working to finish high school and parents working two jobs to get by. Two of the 24 current clients in the home-based program are pregnant women, who receive help with prenatal care and planning for the baby's arrival.
Although the parents are busy, they are deeply involved in each child's care, Freeman said. Parents, who are encouraged to come by the center as often as possible, help set goals for the children, which may be as simple as practicing sitting upright or potty training. They also work with the teachers or assistants on a regular basis.
"We're not taking the parenting roles," said Smiley, who is one of two teachers at the center. "But we're assisting."