Even Start strengthens lives

Published 9:10 am Tuesday, December 29, 2009

POWELLSVILLE – It’s a program that is like a family because it is a family.

Bertie County Even Start has been educating children and adults under one roof for 15 years, raising the achievement levels of both age groups as part of the Family Literacy effort.

“Even Start families become like members of your own family,” said Even Start Coordinator Angela Mizelle. “You laugh and cry together. You celebrate successes and help one another with hurdles.”

The program is nearly 20 years old and has been funded federally under both Democratic and Republican administrations. It has been a regular part of Bertie County Schools for 15 years thanks to the original grant written by Dr. Frances Baker and subsequent grants written by Mizelle.

Pre-kindergarten students attend the program daily and are accompanied by their parents who also have the ability to obtain a high school diploma as well as learning basic skills in reading, math, listening, writing and speaking through the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems (CASAS) curriculum

“Even Start has strengthened the lives of so many families,” said Adult/Parent Instructor Teressa Adams. “The program has added lasting value to the education of many children while enhancing the parent’s use of their own literacy skills. I feel as if the program has helped raise educational levels, improved the work force and made better parents.”

Even Start was designed to help break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy by improving the educational opportunities of low-income families by integrating early childhood education, adult basic education and parenting education into a unified family literacy program.

It also establishes programs that are implemented through cooperative projects that build on high quality existing community resources to create a new range of services.

In Bertie County, Even Start has been a partnership between the Bertie County Board of Education and Martin Community College. The Albemarle Partnership for Children is also a contributor to the program.

“Bertie County Even Start has been successful because Bertie County Schools and Martin Community College are strong partners who believe in Family Literacy,” Mizelle said. “They believe in educating the whole family.”

Mizelle said there had been many others who have contributed to the success of the program over the years including Dr. Baker, Bertie High School Interim Principal G. Fisher Mitchell, the late Don Coley, the late Beth Cayton, Connie Richardson of Bertie County Schools, Bertie High Interim Assistant Principal Norman Cherry, DSS Director Morris Rascoe and JoAnn Jordan of the Bertie County Health Department.

“They have been instrumental in the success of Even Start over the years,” Mizelle said. “The problem of course is that there have been so many that when you name names sometimes you forget, but we appreciate the contribution of everyone.”

The effort is about the students, both young and the young at heart, who have learned from the program and drawn from it over the years.

“To me and my daughter, Sanaiya, Even Start means more opportunity,” said Meyashi Leary. “It gives me an opportunity to meet new people and to also gain more knowledge, even though I already have my diploma.

“My daughter has the opportunity to learn how to interact with children within her age group,” Leary continued. “Since she has been in the Even Start program, my family and I have noticed much improvement in Sanaiya.”

Equalia Freeman agreed.

“The Even Start program means a lot to me,” Freeman said. “I have a chance to go to school with my grandson and to learn again. Both my grandson and I have learned a lot. We have great teachers.”

Maxine Vaughan said she appreciated what Even Start means to her child.

“Even Start means a lot to me and I know for a fact that it means a lot to my daughter,” she said. “I heard about the program through my sister, who attended many years ago. This is my first year here, but the people seem to be like family. My daughter and I wake up every morning knowing that we are going to a place where we are loved.”

The staff at Even Start said they appreciate the students as much as the students appreciate them.

“Over the course of 10 years, I have worked in both the pre-K and adult classrooms,” said Joy White, an Even Start assistant. “I’ve seen so many major transitions happen in so many families. It has been a blessing to watch families grow in knowledge, and most importantly in love.

“I’m so thankful for all of the relationships I’ve built with each family,” White closed.

Kristen Watford, the pre-K teacher, is in her second year with Even Start and calls the program a dream come true.

“I enjoy teaching the pre-K students,” she said. “It is a teacher’s dream to have the parents and school learning and playing with their children.”

Adams said she was also appreciative of the program.

“The staff has witnessed so many success stories,” she said. “We have had many GED graduates and many adults further their education.

“Year after year, we see students: parents, mothers and fathers unite in parenting and friendship,” Adams continued. “Our individual families become on big, happy family.”

Adams said the group not only works hard, but plans weddings, showers, birthdays and other family events together.

And if it weren’t for a dedicated staff, the program would not be as successful, Mizelle said.

“Without a dedicated staff, a staff that genuinely cares, Even Start would not have been successful,” she said. “Because we genuinely care about our students, both young and adult, we have become a model site for family literacy program.”

Each day begins with breakfast for parents and children followed by the two splitting into their own groups. The adults learn basic education, GED or English Language instruction while the children are engaged in educational programming as well.

The two come together again for PACT (Parent and Child Together) just before lunch and then enjoy lunch together before splitting back into separate classrooms for afternoon instruction.

Also, the staff of Even Start makes a monthly visit to each home to provide interactive learning activities.

Mizelle said she believes the program has touched many lives and made Bertie County a stronger place to live and work because of the solid foundation provided to both students and parents.

The program offers on-going registration. Those who are interested in a GED or improving academic or life skills and have a child birth through age eight should contact the program at 332-4841. The Even Start program is housed at the C.G. White Pre-K and More at Four site in Powellsville.

One of the more recent enrollees, Nickiah Stewart, said the program is worth the telephone call.

“In my opinion, Even Start is a great way for families to connect with their children,” she said. “I haven’t really been here that long, but what I have learned over the period of time is that the teachers and staff love our children.

“My child now pays attention when I read to him and he loves to clean up and interact with other children,” she added. “Thank you Even Start.”