Two years ago, Longview resident Jose Castro's 4-year-old daughter, Kenia, didn't understand English and didn't know shapes and colors.
The Lower Columbia College's Head Start program helped catch her up.
"She has made a lot of progress," he said.
Now, Castro and his wife, Wendy Castro, are happy that Head Start is making the same early-learning opportunities available to Kenia's siblings, ages 18 months and 2 months. The Castros are one of 60 families participating in a new program, called Early Head Start, that will provide early-childhood education to families with infants or pregnant mothers.
The age group is significant because it's during a child's earliest years that many social and emotional behaviors are developed and parental nurturing is critical, said Sandy Junker, the program's director. Early Head Start will target low-income homes — including those in which parents struggle with substance abuse or domestic violence — to help parents better tune in to infants' needs.
"We want to serve the neediest of the needy" with the program, said Carleen Wolgamott, the Early Head Start manager.
The program, which starts July 6, will potentially give Head Start an additional three years with students, Junker said. Head Start, a generally acclaimed federal program that works with disadvantaged youngsters, traditionally serves students ages 3 to 5.
Castro, 32, said he is eager for his children to begin their education as early as possible.
"I want them to start early and be ready early," Castro said.
Early Head Start participants will receive weekly 90-minute home visits by a family coach, Junker said. Participating families also will meet twice monthly as a group for learning, discussion and social activities.
Coaches will help connect families to medical, dental and prenatal care if they're lacking it, she said. They will help parents and children build strong relationships, Junker said.
To remain eligible for the program, parents must be actively involved, she said.
They will work with coaches on identifying and fixing hazards or obstacles to learning. For example, families might not realize their television is playing too loudly. They may not recognize when a child wants to be held or understand healthy infant nutrition, Junker said.
Many families, like the Castros, don't have parents living nearby to help guide their child rearing.
Early Head Start is being funded by a $890,000 federal grant. Families accepted into to Early Head Start still must apply for regular Head Start when a child turns 3, Junker said.
Head Start currently serves 349 families, providing a variety of educational activities, free medical and dental care, outdoor play and healthy meals and snacks at its campus facility at Lower Columbia College and other places in the community.
Castro, a gas station attendant and student at Lower Columbia College, said he's grateful for the skills that Head Start has provided his daughter. He wants to study to become an accountant some day, but he's also eager to be a good father. Castro said he's ready to open his home to his new family coach.
"As parents, we're always learning," he said. "If you get extra help, that's good."