More than a dozen preschool children run around the yard in front of the Head Start building at Holbrook Street on a sunny Thursday morning.
The calm eye of this hurricane of exuberant activity is 73-year-old teacher’s assistant Gloria Pritchett. She has been at Head Start for 50 years.
“This is an everyday thing,” Pritchett said during an interview in the middle of the organized chaos. “We have to come outside, try to get in at least an hour [of play time].”
Formally known as the Community Improvement Council Inc. Head Start, the program started in Danville in 1965 and has about 200 children. It has 12 classes with 17 children ages 3 to 5 in each class.
Head Start’s mission is to “provide a flexible comprehensive quality service to income eligible children and children with disabilities in their early stages of development, and also their families, through training and educational programs which will enhance their fullest potential for reaching future goals.”
Pritchett started with the Head Start in Danville on Oct. 1, 1969. She has seen many changes over the decades, but the biggest difference she’s noticed is in the children.
“They’re a little bit more curious, have a little bit more knowledge,” she said. “They’re more inquisitive. They’re just like little sponges.”
Technology, such as the internet, has played a part.
“Every year is something different, as with life itself,” Pritchett said.
She also has noticed not as many parents participate at Head Start. There are more single parents who now must work and get an education to support their families, Pritchett said.
To co-workers, Pritchett has been an inspiration and a source of wisdom.
Edith Petty, a teacher who has worked at Head Start for 31 years, said it was Pritchett who persuaded her to remain with the organization when she felt like giving up.
“I didn’t think I was making a difference,” Petty said. “She inspired me to stay.”
Pritchett holds the Danville Head Start together, she said.
“That wisdom keeps me here,” Petty said of Pritchett’s experience and knowledge. “If they let wisdom go, we’re going to tumble over. She’s the glue.”
Also, the children love her.
“’She’s very easy to get along with,” said Amanda Howell, who has taught at Head Start for two years. “She’s great with the kids.”
Pritchett makes going to work fun, Howell added.
“She’s positive all the time, energetic,” she said. “I’ve learned from her. She teaches me ways to help calm them [the children] down better.”
Family service advocate Sherri Freeman said of Pritchett, “She’s a lovely lady. She very sweet and very silly. She keeps us laughing. Most of the time, she’s running circles around the rest of us.”
A typical day for Pritchett at Head Start begins at about 7:15 a.m. The children arrive to practice writing their names, do puzzles and socialize.
Next, they wash their hands and go to breakfast. Following that, they work on forming letters, shapes and numbers before splitting into smaller groups for help in those tasks.
“It’s more than just socialization,” Pritchett said. “It’s working with language, cognitive skills.”
The kids also have outdoor time before returning inside and washing their hands again, she said. Story time or music movement (dance) usually follows.
Pritchett began at Head Start as a volunteer — while her youngest child was a student there — before applying and becoming a teacher’s assistant. She also was a teacher for many years at the organization.
“I just like my job and I love children,” she said. “I like the staff that I work with.”
She’s not quite ready to retire, though.
“At this point, I don’t know when,” Pritchett said. “But we never know what tomorrow will bring.”
Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.