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Preschool dropouts: Concerns arise as Head Start students stop returning to class

Head Start programs in Cuyahoga County see drop in enrollment for children ages 3 to 5 every January
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Posted at 6:00 PM, Jan 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-18 18:29:42-05

CLEVELAND — Every January, Head Start programs across Cuyahoga County deal with the same issue — children simply stop showing up for class.

“Where are they going and who’s caring for them and who’s teaching them?” said Dr. Thea Wilson, VP of Children and Families at Step Forward, which operates the largest Head Start program in Ohio.

Wilson has been an educator for 47 years and said she’s seen this trend for many, many of those years.

While no formal studies have been done on the “why,” she believes a lot of it has to do with two words:

“Life happens.”

Families move, parents lose jobs and momentum, the holidays take a toll.

But the concerns of students not coming back, primarily those between the ages of 3 and 5 years old — is very real.

“Because we know, at the end of the day, they’re going to end up in someone’s kindergarten and they will not have the skills they need to be successful,” Wilson said.

Data shows roughly 33% of children in Ohio are not prepared when they enter kindergarten.

Wilson added that the missing children aren’t showing up in other systems either.

Head Start is a federal program started in 1965, making it one of the oldest U.S. programs for low-income children.

The program provides more than socialization and language skills for little ones. In these classrooms, they get consistent caretakers, nutritious meals and a huge focus on development.

Inez Owens is the site administrator at George Forbes Early Learning Center.

She said it breaks their hearts when kids they’ve worked to establish relationships with just disappear.

“We have to call and prod and follow up and sometimes the family services workers have to do a drive by just to make sure we stay in communication,” Owens said. “And they’ll trickle back in, but not all of them.”

It’s why they’re begging parents and kids to come back to the classrooms — and hope they can all learn the lesson together — every child counts.