Head Start center opens on SMC campus

Southwestern Michigan College recently welcomed a Head Start program to its Dowagiac campus, boosting internship and observation opportunities for early childhood education students.

“It’s very unique. There’s nothing like it at the community-college level,” said SMC Early Childhood Education Program Director Heather Zile. “They’re going to get a great experience at the associate-degree level some are only lucky enough to have at a bachelor-degree level.”

“Today was the first day of school,” Tri-County Head Start Director Ramona Borowicz announced to the SMC Board of Trustees Oct. 16 as she showed members through the new center. “We’re not just getting children ready for school, we’re getting families ready for school.”

“Almost 40 percent of the Tri-County Head Start workforce were past Head Start parents,” Borowicz said. “Connecting families to associate and B.A. degrees, the sky’s the limit to what we can achieve.”

Paw Paw-based Tri-County Head Start serves 34 students in morning (8 to 11:30 a.m.) and afternoon (1 to 4:30 p.m.). Sessions were previously housed in modular classrooms at 203 S. Paul St., Dowagiac, behind Second Baptist Church.

Head Start’s new self-contained home is in the rear of the bookstore building, adjacent to the Dale A. Lyons Building.

Space was available from Dowagiac Area History Museum’s 2013 move to the former Behnke Paint and Floor Covering downtown.

“We expanded 0 to 3 services into Cass County this year,” Borowicz said. “Parents in our home-based program come twice a month for a center-based experience with their children. At Squires in Cassopolis, we have a Head Start classroom, and an Early Head Start center for 0 to3 child care. [Who goes where] depends on the bus route. We still have 34 at the Dowagiac center.”

“We want our program to grow. All Heather lacked was the laboratory. By bringing Head Start on campus, she’ll be able to have students work with children,” said SMC Chief of Staff Thomas Atkinson.

“I feel like I have the best job on campus because of the unique opportunity to teach best practices to future teachers,” Zile said. “There’s no better way to teach individuals who will interact with young children entering school than to see it at work.”

A 192-hour internship requirement is attached to associate degrees.

“It would not work if I put them all in here,” Zile said, “but there will be a rotation. At least two courses each semester will have projects embedded in the classroom.”

Atkinson said the college installed a child-size restroom and cut a door to create a dedicated entrance with a fenced playground.

“It’s all provided by Head Start,” he said. “They provide the instructor (Heidi Mott), a para-pro, desks and playground equipment. We provide the space. It’s not a day care for employees.”

“This is such a great situation, collaborating with an organization that has the highest benchmark standards in the state because it’s federally-funded,” Zile said.

Zile, a 1992 SMC graduate, is starting her fourth year directing SMC’s early childhood program.

“Heather’s passion is to make sure early childhood education is done professionally. She brought the partnering idea to us,” said SMC President Dr. David Mathews.

Tri-County Head Start is sponsored by Tri-County Council for Child Development, a private, nonprofit corporation whose board includes county commissioners, community representatives and parents from Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

SMC Nursing and Health Services Dean Rebecca Jellison serves on the Head Start board led by former Board of Commissioners chairman Robert Wagel.

Head Start has had two directors since 1970. The late Orion Flowers, who served 34 years, was succeeded by Borowicz in 2004.

Federal income guidelines determine preschool eligibility. Head Start is free to those who qualify.

Head Start helps families meet children’s educational, nutritional, health, social and emotional needs by providing a number of services in centers and homes, linking families with other service providers.

Head Start programs are run by and for parents of children it serves. Parents direct their policy, plan and budget.

Head Start assures children’s participation in well-child care, including physical and dental examinations.

Children receive meals and snacks meeting a third of daily nutritional needs.

Tri-County also operates centers or Early Head Start in Bangor, Benton Harbor, South Haven, Decatur, Spinks Center, Watervliet, Niles, Paw Paw, Gobles and Sawyer.

“We have 908 children in three counties,” Borowicz said, “and 12 buses. The SMC bus also picks up Cass children.”

There are 90 Head Start programs throughout Michigan.

Michigan State University Human Development and Family Studies has had child-development laboratories since 1927.

Central Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Services also has a Child Development and Learning Lab.

Borowicz graduated from CMU in 1992 and started as a Head Start teacher in nearby Shepherd.

Southwestern Michigan College is a public, residential and commuter, community college, founded in 1964. The college averages in the top 10 percent nationally for student academic success based upon the National Community College Benchmark Project. Southwestern Michigan College strives to be the college of first choice, to provide the programs and services to meet the needs of students, and to serve our community. The college is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and is a member of the American Association of Community Colleges.


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