In 1969 The Christian Family Movement, an interdenominational group of ministers, priests, and lay-persons from the Park Royal Church and St. Pius the Tenth Church, were meeting on a regular basis. The people involved in the group wanted to initiate a project in their community which would be an expression of their faith and would involve children. The group invited a representative from the Newstart program to come and speak to them. They decided to start a preschool program, based on the Newstart model, for children in the area who were economically and socially disadvantaged. The aim was to provide a program to 5 year olds to build social skills in preparation for school entry. It was thought that if children received the opportunity to attend a preschool program, the positive effects would extend for years into their school years.
The Parkdale Sherwood Headstart Program began in Dec. 1969 in a room at the old St. Mary’s on Mt. Edward Road. The room was provided at no cost by the Sisters. A co-ordinator, assisted by three different volunteers each day, welcomed seven children to the program. None of the women had any early childhood training and they all worked as volunteers. The children were chosen by the clergy, the school teachers in the area who were familiar with the older children in some families, and the local Public Health Nurse. The children paid no tuition fees and were transported to and from the new preschool by members of the volunteer group.
The children who attended the program were 4 and 5 years old. The aim was to improve their pre-academic skills by improving their social skills and their physical well-being. Lack of stimulation was seen as the main cause of the developmental delays many of the children experienced. The half day program consisted of group games, music sessions once every two weeks, activities to improve eye-hand co-ordination, art work, pencil-paper tasks and activities to teach letter recognition and counting. In mid-morning the children were washed up and given a snack of peanut butter and crackers and milk. The Public Health nurse made regular visits to the sessions. She checked the children’s health, gave inoculations and with the help of the co-ordinator kept a chart on each child’s progress both mentally and physically.
During the first year’s six week program, the couples involved in the group financed it through donations. The second year the group sought financial assistance from the Dept. of Education and in Feb. 1970 were given $1,000. This money was used to hire a driver, a father of one of the children, to pick up and deliver the children and to pay a small wage to the co-ordinator. They each received $25 per week. The group also began the process of soliciting donations from service clubs and supportive individuals. The Catholic Women’s League, the United Church Women, Parkdale Home and School, I.O.D.E., the Kings Daughters and some private individuals. The Department of Education donated a language development kit. The budget for those first few years was $75 per week ($25 for the driver, $25 for the co-ordinator, milk and crackers $15, and $10 for materials).
During the first years of the program the co-ordinator and the couples on the committee which administered the program followed up on the progress of the children that had attended their program. They were pleased to find that the children were successful in school and this positive feedback inspired them to continue to develop their work.
In the 1970’s the provincial government began to place emphasis on providing full day programs for children of working parents. Prior to this, organized full day child care service had virtually been non-existent on P.E.I. The Department of Education put pressure on kindergartens to expand into full day service and to offer their programs to 3-6 year olds. The Headstart program underwent intense debate over the direction of their program. The Child Care Subsidy Program which had been brought in made it possible for any child to attend the licensed day care of their choice and be subsidized. No longer would the population of economically disadvantaged children be funnelled to the six centres receiving grants. The Headstart people had to decide to expand and receive younger children or to discontinue their program. There would no longer be a guaranteed funding or population of children.
Headstart became incorporated in 1975 as a non-profit organization and applied and received registered charity status. The original purpose of the program was “to promote…and provide a preschool centre for the social and educational development of certain children who would not otherwise have the opportunity of benefitting from such a program.” Although the program’s structure had changed, the founders wanted to retain this purpose. It was decided that the group of children who were not being included in other preschool programs was children with disabilities. The focus changed to actively promote the program as a centre which includes children with disabilities.