By Joel Hall
Despite rainy weather, 352 students, who are enrolled in the Clayton County Head Start program, gathered in Forest Park to celebrate their diversity and their passage to kindergarten.
Head Start's annual International Day Celebration took place at the preschool's South Avenue location on Friday morning. The celebration brought together students from all three of the county's Head Start locations, parents, and vendors from around the metro area. And it included health screenings, financial assistance, and safety information.
As of a part of the celebration, all of Head Start's pre-kindergarten students participated in a parade, in which each classroom represented the different countries that are representative of the student body. Mary Merritt, center manager for Head Start's South Avenue location, said students spent two weeks decorating their classrooms, learning phrases and songs of different countries, and preparing native costumes.
"We do this because a lot of parents want to do a graduation, but we don't do graduations at Head Start," Merritt said. "Each classroom picks a country, and for two weeks, they learn everything they can about the country. This brings out a lot of parents ... every year, it gets bigger and bigger."
The Head Start program provides day-care and pre-school services for low-earning families. Merritt said many of the students are the children of immigrants and that the International Celebration helps children learn to be tolerant of other cultures.
"We have a big, diverse group, so when they [the students] get here, they are not too friendly to each other," Merritt said. "[The celebration] improves their social skills. By the time they leave here, they learn how to get along with other people better."
Franca Alele, a Head Start teacher at the South Avenue location, said the International Day Celebration has taken place at the center for several years. She said the program is a valuable learning experience for the children. "They get to learn about the history, the culture, the way [people of other countries] dress," Alele said. "This will help them when they go into elementary and they have learned about these things. They will say that, 'I know the colors of that flag.'"
For more than 40 years, the Clayton County Community Services Authority (CSA) has operated the Clayton County Head Start program. Charles W. Grant, CSA executive director, said the International Day Celebration highlights the importance of the continuation of the publicly-funded Head Start program.
"People are always surprised about the size of this program," Grant said. "With the high cost of day care, this really is a blessing. [The International Day Celebration] helps people see that [Head Start] is not 'pie-in-the-sky.' They can see that their tax dollars are truly well-spent.
"These are still some of the vestiges of President Lyndon Johnson and the war on poverty," Grant added. "We're still successful after 40-something years. This is our mission. We can't forget that."