MOUNT VERNON — Skagit/Islands Head Start is planning to open additional early learning centers that will help it expand services to children and families.

The Skagit Valley College program is able to expand thanks to $14.5 million in grant money, with about $6.7 million dedicated to new centers.

“The one thing about this community, there are an incredible number of organizations and people who are focused on early learning,” said Mary Ellen Lykins, director for Skagit/Islands Head Start. “There’s a lot of energy coming into early learning.”

Skagit/Islands Head Start, which has for decades provided early childhood education, family stability and health services for vulnerable children and families, will be able to provide more full-day classes and expand the Early Head Start and Head Start programs it offers for children through the age of 5.

“The full-day Early Head Start model is Monday through Friday, 6 1/2 hours a day and it’s pretty much all year long, even during the summer,” Lykins said. “That’s where Head Start put their focus … they just feel that ... more work, more time can lead to stronger outcomes.”

Both programs are receiving substantial increases in funding from last year, Lykins said.

In addition to $7.8 million to fund operations, supplemental funding of $6.7 million was also awarded to address program needs — mostly the financing of facilities in Burlington, Oak Harbor and Friday Harbor, and the early learning center proposed for Skagit Valley College’s Mount Vernon campus.

These facilities are intended to allow the organization to meet priorities identified during the grant application process.

“What happened here was we went into a process that a lot of people call re-competition,” Lykins said. “Before that … if things were going smoothly, you just had to do a continuation grant. You still had to put in your grants but it just kind of flowed. The re-competition system, even though it was stressful, really really gave us an opportunity we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

That opportunity was to basically re-build the program from the ground up.

“What would we do if we could start this thing over?” Lykins said. “This was the first time we could really tear it all down to the ground and see what we want to keep, what we want to change.”

Skagit/Islands Head Start identified three areas to focus resources on: providing more full-day classes, providing more programming that targeted the Early Head Start age group and to continue to offer varied services to the community.

“We knew that there’s a huge gap in the birth to 3 world. There’s no childcare and where there is childcare for that age it’s tremendously expensive,” Lykins said. “The resources for that group were so horribly lacking.”

More full-day classes require more space, so Skagit/Islands Head Start is expanding from 11 centers to 14.

Buildings in Burlington and Oak Harbor are being looked at for purchase, and the center in Friday Harbor is going to be replaced with a new modular building.

Only the center on the Skagit Valley College’s Mount Vernon campus will be be built from the ground up.

Lykins anticipates the Burlington, Friday Harbor and Oak Harbor facilities will be purchased in a few months, and could be operational in the span of a year.

The grant money will also go toward creating 38 new full-time positions, adding on to the roughly 90 full-time positions Skagit/Islands Head Start already has.

— Assistant Assignment Editor Iain Woessner: 360-416-2193, iwoessner@skagitpublishing.com

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