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A vision 50 years ago to operate a Head Start program through the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh has assisted thousands of low income children at nine sites in seven northeast Wisconsin communities.

The partnership between UW Oshkosh and Head Start is one of just 16 such partnerships in the nation.

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“We are very, very unique to partner with UW Oshkosh,” said Lynn Hammen, director of the UW Oshkosh Head Start that operates at sites from Oshkosh to the Appleton area to Shawano, serving more than 500 children in four counties. “This partnership offers learning opportunity for University students who have been welcomed as practicum students, volunteers, STEP (Student Titan Employment Program) student workers, or one time observes from social work, early childhood education, nursing and human development majors. Many UW Oshkosh graduates have been employed by Head Start and have joined the team of professionals serving children and families.”

The partnership is unique in that nearly all Head Start programs that are operated through a Community Action Program agency or Cooperative Educational Service Agency.

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Supported by federal grant funds, UW Oshkosh Head Start had humble beginnings in 1967 from the basement of UW Oshkosh’s Swart Hall—opening about two years after the national inception of Head Start. UW Oshkosh is the holder of the Head Start grant.

“In the 60s, there was the Peace Corps and other things nationally,” said Kelly Butzlaff, director of Head Start’s Family and Community Partnerships. “A group of folks said, ‘what can we do right here to address poverty?’”

Head Start is intended to provide a head start to children—mostly 4-year-olds—who need help catching up to their peers.

“Children in poverty often aren’t ready to begin kindergarten,” Butzlaff said. “There is tons of research on this. There might be a lack of books in the home and the number of words spoken. There may be trauma in the home. All the little pieces (connected to poverty) add to it.”

There is no fee for Head Start programs. Clients served by Head Start qualify if their family is at or below, 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The program offers early childhood programming, classroom curriculum, disability services, health services, mental health services, nutrition services and family services.

Four-year-old kindergarten services are provided at sites in Shawano, Appleton, Menasha and Oshkosh.

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Parents are encouraged to participate in program planning and elected representatives from each site contribute to program governance through Policy Council.

Butzlaff said they sometimes see children who do not know how to hold a pencil or use a scissors. They are taught to sit in class and stand in line.

School readiness is a big areas of focus. Students show substantial gains in language and literacy, math, science, creative arts, social/emotional development as well as cognitive and physical development.

“We want to work with families as much as we can,” she said about the “precious nine months” they typically have to work with the children. “We then hand the family off to the school district.”

Head Start makes gains by fostering teamwork between parents and teachers.

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“Our job is to empower parents,” Hammen said. “We might talk to them about how getting going 15 minutes earlier in the morning will help their child the rest of the day (but) we aren’t judgmental.”

Head Start has a long history of providing health and nutrition education and meal service. Children who need medical, dental or vision services receive treatment at no cost.

“Head Start provides children and families with the tools they need to succeed in school and life at no cost to participants,” Hammen said. “Highly qualified, trained, and caring staff provide comprehensive services and activities that help children grow educationally, physically, socially and emotionally. We believe parents are their child’s most important teachers. We encourage parent participation in all program activities and partner with parents to help children succeed.”

50th Anniversary event at UW Oshkosh

The 50th Anniversary celebration takes place from 3-5 p.m. Thursday, May 25, at the UW Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center.

An open house reception will honor UW Oshkosh Head Start leadership and will include special children’s programming.

“Head Start has been providing quality early childhood education to children in the Oshkosh and Fox Valley area for 50 years,” said Ameerah McBride, director of equity and affirmative action at UW Oshkosh. “The University has shown tremendous commitment to the education of this community, including those families who are lower income and would lack access to these services at the market rate. I’m proud to be a member of a university community that values the significance of early childhood education.”

UW Oshkosh Head Start is based at nine sites in the region:

  • Wilcox Head Start, 515 E. Parkway Ave., Oshkosh
  • Peace Head Start, 240 W. 9th Ave., Oshkosh
  • Menasha Head Start, 540 Second St., Menasha
  • Kaukauna Head Start, St. Mary’s School, 112 W. Eighth St., Kaukauna
  • Neenah Head Start, Washington School of Early Learning, 220 E. Franklin Ave., Neenah
  • Community Early Learning Center Head Start, 313 S. State St., Appleton
  • Project Bridges Child Care Collaboration, 313 S. State St., Appleton
  • Seymour Head Start, 406 N. Main St., Seymour
  • Shawano Head Start, 1515 S. Lincoln St., Shawano

UW Oshkosh Head Start was established at what was known in 1967 as Wisconsin State University-Oshkosh under the direction of Shirley Williams and eight staff members. Classes were held in the basement of Swart Hall. Williams, who died in 2016, was widely believed to be the first African American employee at UW Oshkosh.

In 1967, the Head Start Child Development Center aimed to provide the best in a nursery school type program for 48 children whose families were unable to provide these experiences, plus complete medical and dental evaluation under Title 19 federal programs. The program was in session three hours per day with three classes of 16 students each. The children served needed to reach their fourth birthday by Sept. 1 and reside in the Oshkosh Area Public School District. Free transportation and free lunch was provided for all participants.

Carolyn Blassingame, of Oshkosh, was hired as head teacher at the program’s inception. Her husband had been hired at the University and she had a background in elementary education.

Blassingame said she recalls having to drive children home “in a giant red station wagon” after class.

She said the daily activity taught her about Oshkosh’s south side—even though the New York transplant initially knew little about her own Oshkosh neighborhood.

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She points out that a group of former Head Start employees continue to gather once a month at Evergreen in Oshkosh.

Lois Eierman also was hired after moving with her husband and children to Oshkosh from New York. Her husband had begun a job teaching in the UW Oshkosh math department.

Eierman worked with Head Start for about 35 years, retiring about 20 years ago.

She recalls one of the objectives was to feed the children half of their daily nutritional requirements. A number of duties were given to parents, who worked as bus drivers and teacher’s aides.

“It was the best job ever,” she recalled of her time working with UW Oshkosh Head Start. “It was rewarding, fun and interesting. I got to work with kids and parents.”