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BOBBY ARDOIN
Editor and Contributing Writer

Feature Photograph: Jill Inhern, director of the St. Landry Parish Head Start Program, opens the early learning network event at the Civic Center (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)

The varieties of St. Landry Parish early learning programs are expanding and their proficiency increases are being acknowledged by state education officials and annual test scores.

However there still exists a need for more public exposure to the importance of educating pre-kindergarten children parishwide, says a state official familiar with early childhood education.

Candace Weber, partnership director at the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said in a St. Landry Now interview, that state and the parish still have work to do in order to increase the readiness of children who enter kindergarten.

“There are a lot of programs for parents, such as those who need to work and can’t because of child care. There is still a lot of opportunity to make an impact with the programs that we offer,” Weber said following a parish Early Learning Network program held at the Opelousas Civic Center.

Weber was the keynote speaker that also featured a panel of guests and speakers that included Opelousas Police Chief Martin McLendon, Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, Opelousas General president and CEO Kenneth Cochran, St. Landry School Superintendent Patrick Jenkins and Bill Rodier, executive director of the St. Landry Industrial and Economic Development District.

Jill Inhern, director of the St. Landry Parish School District Head Start program, pointed to the numerous parish agencies available to assist with early childhood learning.

Inhern reminded those attending the event that there are nine early head start centers under the School District umbrella in addition to one non-public school pre-kindergarten program.

Pre-kindergarten programs are also offered at 13 public schools in the District, while there are 19 child care centers certified and operating in St. Landry.

Inhern and Webert invited businesses and individuals to invest in the parish early childhood network programs.

One of the lucrative programs for a parent who has a child up to three years of age features free tuition if a parent wants to seek higher education credits, said Inhern.

Businesses Inhern said, can also obtain tax credits for donating to early childhood programs.

“These tax credits can be matched dollar for dollar. There is also a program available within the network for child care provided to mothers in order to continue their education. We are doing everything we can in St. Landry and inviting individuals to invest and help with our early network. We think our little people are important,”  Inhern said.

Inhern said participation by parents has been increasing each year and state officials who certify the programs have given St. Landry high marks.

“The statistics are showing that we have a high proficiency and all of our staff is working hard,” added Inhern.

Jenkins said the School District took control of the Head Start Program four years ago and progress is occurring.

“We are working with our program step by step, but we can’t afford to wait. The urgency is now,” said Jenkins.

McLendon in a separate St. Landry Now interview, noted that he has seen firsthand  some parish and Opelousas children are at-risk due to environmental factors.

“You increase the educational opportunities and you will see a decrease in juvenile crime. Violent crime and weapons can be related to adults, but my focus is on children. It’s important because the mind of a child develops so fast,” McLendon said.

McLendon said officers have often responded to late night and early morning disturbances at city residences where although adults were involved, there were also children present, whose need for sleep was disturbed by the incidents.

“You arrive someplace at 2 a.m and there’s a two-year-old present in the middle of the adult disturbance. If you lose sleep, you can’t learn,” McLendon said.

Weber said the gathering at the Civic Center underlined the community impact of early learning.

“We wanted to emphasize the community impact and the impact on the work force that early childhood development has on a community. In order to do that, we have to bring in everyone, businesses, law enforcement and health care,” Weber said.

Rev. Dale Fontenot provides an invocation at the start of the early learning network event. (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)