Community Action’s new building

Lavette Williams, Editor-in-Chief

In May 2019, Community Action Partnership of North Alabama’s Head Start Program was asked to relocate by the Florence City Board of Education.

Community Action had been in the Handy Head Start Center ever since they took over in 2013. However, due to the board of education needing space, they were left to find classrooms that could hold their children.

“After we weren’t in the [Handy] building anymore, Dr. Jimmy Shaw, [Florence City Superintendent], did come back and say that we could put three classrooms in Weeden Elementary School,” said Kim Dodd, Director of Children’s Services. “That was very gracious of him and I was very appreciative because we were having a really hard time finding a spot for our children.”

While in search of a new facility, Community Action has also partnered with Focus Scope, Kid’s Club and Westminster Presbyterian Church for the past two school years.

“All of our partners have been wonderful,” said Dodd.

Soon after their move, Community Action began applying for funding from the Office of Head Start (OHS), a U.S. department that administers grant funding and oversight to agencies. It is through the OHS that they were able to purchase and to renovate an 11,000 square ft. building on three acres of land.

“The building was almost $2.5 million,” Dodd said. “We’re thrilled to have this new building. It’s going to be a really attractive state of the art building, and our teachers are going to be so thrilled to be in there and to be back together.”

Community Action’s new facility, the Lauderdale County Early Learning Center, will be located on Glory Way in Florence, and is expected to be completed in June 2021.

Dodd said that being in this new building is going to ground Community Action even deeper into the community, to embed them.

 “I’m excited for everybody … for our children, families and future families,” Dodd said. “I hope that it will help with recruitment and our partnering once we have an established place.”

While the Handy Heart Start building was the center’s home for five years, the new building will offer Community Action more space. It will have a full-service kitchen, nine classrooms, office space, teacher resource room and a breakroom.

Tim Thrasher, CEO of Community Action, said that a new facility will increase the quality of the care for the children and the families that they are serving.

“We try to do things first class for our families,” Thrasher said. “[The Lauderdale County Early Learning Center] is a first-class facility. It will be a showplace for a continuum of care for children in the area.”

For many of Community Action’s teachers and parents, their new Head Start building will promise them a fresh experience, a shorter drive and some solidarity.

Katie Coosenberry, a teacher with Community Action, admits that being separated from the other teachers has been hard.

“We’re scattered all throughout Florence,” Coosenberry said. “We don’t feel that close bond with each other anymore. I can’t wait to have our school family back together and to get that fresh start in a new room.”

Coosenberry is not only a Heart Start teacher, but she is also a parent within their program. This allows her to encounter the program from another perspective.

“I’m also excited as a parent,” Coosenberry said. “Because of our new location, [my son] Jett will be able to experience being in a new school with new things and new materials. He will be close to home when he transitions out and goes into kindergarten. [Also] we live in Central so it won’t be as far as a drive for us.” 

Many in the area may be wondering, “What is Community Action’s Head Start Program? Why was it so important to find it a new complex?”

Community Action Head Start Program offers services to all children.

It offers services to children from birth to age five and pregnant women who are from families with incomes below the poverty guidelines. Children from homeless families and families receiving public assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplementary Security Income (SSI) are also eligible. Foster children are eligible regardless of their foster family’s income.

The program also accepts children from families who are middle and over income; however, the positions available for them are very limited according to priority points given at time of application.

“A big benefit [to our program] is the comprehensive services we provide for our children,” Dodd said. “We do health screenings, nutritional screenings, dental screenings and developmental screenings. These tests are done so that we can better serve our children.”

Dodd said children cannot learn if they are unhealthy.

According to Understood, evaluating a child can help schools understand their strengths and challenges. This could also provide targeted support and shed light on strategies that can help the child’s parents at home.

“A big part of our mission is to work with the parents … whatever that family may look like, so they can learn to parent better,” said Dodd.

Community Action is known for connecting their parents with their Family Engagement Specialists, who aids them in reaching their personal goals. This staff can help them get jobs, housing and even purchase a car.

Coosenberry began taking advantage of Community Action’s children services once she found out that she was pregnant with her son, Jett in 2017.

“[Community Action] was able to give me so many resources,” Coosenberry said. “The Family Engagement Specialist was able to help prepare me with different health services, counseling and food assistance, like WIC and food stamps. They gave me housing information, prenatal and postpartum information and tours of hospitals in the area.”

Because family engagement was continuously working with Coosenberry, preparing her for after birth, by the time her son was born, he was already signed up for their Home Visitors (HV) Program.  

The HV Program provides information, support and encouragement to parents and caregivers through home visits to help children develop in the best way during the crucial early years of life.

Coosenberry said home visiting staff met with her and Jett once a week to work with them. They taught her how to interact with him, ways to bond with him, ways to help his development that was age appropriate for him.

“They [told] me that I should talk to him while I change a diaper,” Coosenberry said. “[At first] I didn’t understand why, but they told me that you have to tell him what you’re doing, talk to him. Just using that language around him, I never even knew that.”  

Once Jett turned 7 months, he was transferred to the Early Head Start Program, where was assigned to be with two teachers for two and a half years.  

“I’ve always known that I’ve had it so lucky, that I was so lucky to be able to see him,” Coosenberry said. “Before we got out of Handy, I was able to peek into his classroom and I could walk him from my [own] classroom to his. Since leaving [the Handy Head Start Center] the adapting to dropping him off at a separate center was hard.”

Coosenberry said that knowing that Jett was with the same teachers kept her at ease.

“They love him,” Coosenberry said. “They care about him.”

It was not until Jett turned three years old this year that he began preschool, where the transition was a lot different than usual. While children in preschool normally are moved to a separate room, Jett and other preschoolers will be experiencing a new room, a new building and new teachers.

Coosenberry said that trying to get Jett used to the structure when he has never seen it before has been rough.

“As a parent, my heart is so attached to his old teachers and I know I’ll get attached to the new ones too,” said Coosenberry.

On Jett’s last day in the Head Start Program, Coosenberry and his teachers huddled together and cried.

“They were so upset,” She said. “They wanted to keep him until the end of the summer but they also knew it was his time, he was ready to be a big kid.”

However, this did not stop Jett’s teachers from coming to visit him. One day, they tried to catch him playing on the playground.

Coosenberry said when Jett saw them; he was in tears crying because he was so happy to see them.

“[Community Action] has been a big part of my life,” Coosenberry said. “I haven’t really sat and thought about it until Jett was transferred into the preschool class. I’ve been with food and services since I was pregnant. [Jett has] grown with the program. I’ve been supported the whole way.”  

These connections and support were the kind of resources that Community Action promised their families.

In addition to helping the families within the program, Community Action makes sure to take care of the teachers within their program as well.

Many teachers are expected to come in having a college degree. A college degree or advanced certificate increasingly represents the entry ticket to rewarding careers and fulfilling lives, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

The U.S. Department of Education stated that the United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the world. Among students who do complete high school and go on to college, nearly half require remedial courses and nearly half never graduate.

One of the problems that Community Action has run into with their Head Start Program is finding qualified teachers.

“That’s the Catch-22,” Dodd said. “And because the childcare system doesn’t pay as much, there’s a shortage of workforce in the early childhood industry.”

In order to accommodate for this, Community Action offers their teachers assistance in obtaining their child development certificate and help pay for tuition to get their Associate Degree so they can increase their pay.

“And if we’ve met those priorities, then we’ll help with [their Bachelor Degree],” Dodd said. “We usually don’t pay for everything, but we certainly help.”

Another benefit of being a teacher at Community Action is their participation in the Teachers Retirement System (TRS), which prepares them for a successful retirement, and their health system.

Thrasher said they focus on the social and emotional health of not only their families, but also their teachers and staff.

“We really focused on that this year for our staff,” Thrasher said. “We provide a lot of social and emotional training for our teachers through conscious discipline and various other programs so that there’s some positivity going into the classroom.”

Thrasher said it is a stressful job being a teacher.

Teaching has looked different this year for many educators. 

“It’s been overwhelming [with COVID still ongoing],” Coosenberry said. “I have five children on the remote. I would much rather have them one on one in the classroom, but for those families, I think we’re making it work. I think we’re finally getting the hang of things.”

While it can be stressful, especially ensuring a child is both safe and learning in the midst of a pandemic, a teacher at Community Action Head Start Program is also important. Because they take care of children between the ages 0-3, they have the opportunity to make a huge impact on a child’s life.

“As a teacher, I believe in [our Head Start] program so much,” Coosenberry said. “I trust in everything about it.”

 Coosenberry said that a lot of people have a misconception that their program is free daycare. They believe that they drop their kids and the teacher is there to babysit.

“That’s not what it is,” Coosenberry said. “We have lesson plans. We individualize goals for each child’s needs. We access them, making sure they’re on the right track for kindergarten. [Some parents] don’t realize how much their kids are actually learning and that what they are learning will stay with them for years to come.”

Coosenberry was once in their shoes. She, too, did not know what Community Action was about until she joined as a teacher and later, as a parent.

“I researched the program, what they meant, and stood for,” said Coosenberry. “I [discovered] that there’s much good that can come from it. It can be life-changing. To know that this organization, this program has so much support for me as teachers and then to be able to support my family is awesome.”