When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his War on Poverty in 1964, one of the jewels in his campaign was Head Start. The program, an investment in education to prepare the children of lower-income families for kindergarten, is the only program created during Johnson’s initiative that has been consistently funded since it began.
Now, Charlotte Pirnat is stepping down after 26 years with Tri-County Head Start, the last 11 as executive director. She is reflecting on what a lifetime’s work with young children has meant, and how times have changed.
“When I started in 1987,” she said, “we had 38 kids in the program, and we were located near the Herald. We took them across a busy street, Main, to play in Buckley Park, where there’s no fence. We couldn’t do that now.”
The program currently has 293 children ranging in age from 6 weeks through 5 years of age, and the challenges are numerous. Pirnat manages 92 staff members and deals with five different school districts, including Durango School District 9-R, Cortez, Dolores, Mancos and Pagosa Springs, with different start dates and schedules.
As Head Start is a federal program, she and her staff have to comply with scores of regulations, and she has to write a grant every year to renew the federal funding for Tri-County. The planning and writing of the grant takes about seven months of the year, and that doesn’t begin to cover the paperwork involved.
“In Head Start, if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen,” Pirnat said.
During her career with Head Start, Pirnat conservatively estimates she has affected about 2,700 children’s lives, beginning with her years as a teacher and program director. The number of hours she has put in are incalculable.
“I remember driving by on a Saturday morning, and she’d be working, no other cars, just Charlotte’s,” said Loreta Beam, who is the president of the Durango 4-C Council board of directors, which oversees both Tri-County Head Start and coordinates with other early-childhood programs. “And all those late nights, there she’d be, working.”
“We don’t offer child care, we provide child development,” Pirnat said. “We teach them how to take turns, how to listen, how to be upset and use words without hurting or screaming. We actually teach them the words for those situations, because how can a 3-year-old know those words otherwise? Once they can manage their own behavior, the whole world’s ahead of them to learn.”
She has worked to increase the training and education not only of her own staff, but of all early-childhood professionals in Southwest Colorado. Half her staff is required to have a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education or a related field, and Pirnat has found that many aides begin working with young children and are inspired get more education in the field.
“She and I were the first two folks to bring in the Expanding Quality in Infant Care and Toddler Training about 14 years ago,” said Tamara Volz, the executive director of the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County and Southwest Office of Resource and Referral. “It was a reach, because people were focusing on preschool then. But this series of classes teaches about brain development, how to set up the classroom, caring for young children ... ”
Volz estimates that more than 500 child care providers have attended at least some of the EQ training, with 150 to 200 completing the 48-hour course.
A new home for Head Start
The course is only one way Pirnat has had an impact on child care providers in the area.
“She’s a born leader,” Volz said. “She’s very calm, supportive, and has a huge capacity to develop other people. She sees what other people should be doing and always looks at the big picture. I count myself lucky to have been one of the people she mentored.”
Beam pointed out Pirnat’s capacity to lead toward the future, including creating a new home for the Roberta Shirley Center. The new complex includes three buildings that were either remodeled or built from scratch near Durango Public Library on East Third Avenue. Pirnat applied for and received a number of grants, including funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to complete the project that took almost five years in stages.
“She had a vision, and she’s caused it to come to fruition: to serve the children and families of the Head Start community and to make the greater community aware of what the needs are.” Beam said. “The building improvements, centralizing our services after it was here and there, was so significant.”
Pirnat will be on the job until the 4-C Board hires her replacement, and she will help train the next executive director. She’s considering applying to consult for Head Start and will continue serving on the Early Childhood Council’s board of directors for the time being, so those years of experience won’t go to waste.
But Pirnat will finally have time for some of her personal passions.
“I have a granddaughter I don’t get to see very often in Cleveland,” she said. “I’m a quilter, and I don’t get a chance to do as much of that as I’d like to do. And hopefully, some travel. I haven’t let myself think about traveling for a long time. I’d love to be doing lots of reading and maybe take an afternoon nap occasionally.”