WINNEBAGO — In the back room of the education building of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, a baby with curled black hair and dark eyes sits quietly on the carpet, intently studying the grown-ups’ faces.
“She’s a very serious baby,” a teacher says.
There’s a lot to take in. She and 11 other children have been coming to this school in Winnebago for only three days, so there are new people to get to know before the smiles will come freely. But so far, the food seems good and there’s constant stimulation from teachers. Not a bad place to be while Mom and Dad are working.
The teachers at Tri-Valley Opportunity Council’s new South Central Area Learning Center are hoping many more children and their parents will learn about Migrant and Seasonal Head Start. The educational program serves children from 6 weeks to age 5 while their parents work in agriculture during the summer months.
“We are really trying to prepare the children for kindergarten,” said Cally Ingebritson, family and community services specialist with Tri-Valley.
There are 14 other centers around the state, and Winnebago’s is the latest to open, mainly serving families working at Seneca Foods in Blue Earth, Ingebritson said.
The learning center opened Monday and can serve up to 35 children. The program will run through September, and families are welcome to apply at any time.
Ingebritson said many of the families live in Texas and come north during the summer to work on farms.
“Families come each year to work in peas and corn,” she said. “Right now it’s peas.”
Their children may normally stay with older siblings, other family members or baby sitters. But Ingebritson said the center is a good alternative, free of charge, that provides an added educational experience for the kids. The children are even bused from area communities every day and stay at the center from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
At the Winnebago facility, the children are split into three rooms, grouped by age. Teachers are assigned to each room to provide lessons, activities and meals.
In the toddler room, children were playing with Play-Doh, for example, learning about colors and shapes. They also learn the all-important lesson of cleanup time.
“OK, put it away now,” Sara Petrowiak says to a little boy holding a mound of blue Play-Doh.
“Good job,” Allison Miller says, helping cram the putty into the container.
Marysol Sanchez, a bilingual classroom advocate, reads books to children in Spanish. Several of the facility’s 15-member staff knows at least some Spanish, as some of the children don’t speak English, while others don’t speak Spanish. Signs on doors and labels are in both languages, too.
The goal of the program isn’t to teach the children English, but Petrowiak said children do absorb some English through hearing conversation and associating words with objects and activities.
Nutritious breakfasts and lunches are served daily, Ingebritson said. Wednesday’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and carrots for lunch, catered by the Winnebago nursing home, was served family style with kids in each room gathered around little tables, just right for their height.
Also free during the program, children can receive medical and dental exams, as well as immunizations. Tri-Valley also works to connect the families with other resources they may need in the community.
Funded through state and federal grants, staff includes a site manager, health consultant, family service and transportation staff.
Other southern Minnesota centers are located in Elysian, Sleepy Eye and Owatonna.
Families may register at any time. Visit www.tvoc.org or call 1-800-569-1379 for more information.