Hundreds of new vacancies for no-cost preschool will open up in January in Jackson and Josephine counties, setting off an end-of-year campaign to recruit children from low-income families to fill them.

Hundreds of new vacancies for no-cost preschool will open up in January in Jackson and Josephine counties, setting off an end-of-year campaign to recruit children from low-income families to fill them.

"We are very excited to have the additional space," said Nancy Nordyke, director of Southern Oregon Head Start. "We know from feedback we get from school districts that Head Start really helps children have a more successful kindergarten experience."

Southern Oregon Head Start will offer 171 additional slots for 3- and 4-year-olds, bringing the total in Jackson and Josephine counties to 1,013. That includes two new Head Start centers, one called the Foothills Head Start at Springbrook Road and one in White City. The White City location has not been finalized. Existing Head Start centers at Merriman, Riverside, White City and Grants Pass also are expanding.

The Oregon Child Development Coalition will open a new Oregon Pre-Kindergarten program, with space for 54 children, at the Briscoe School in Ashland, 265 N. Main St., where OCDC currently offers a Migrant Head Start program for seasonal workers' children.

The state of Oregon in 2007 bolstered early childhood education funding by 68 percent to $39 million for two years.

In spite of the economic downturn, Gov. Ted Kulongoski has proposed another six-percent increase in pre-kindergarten funding for the 2009-2011 biennium.

"There should be plenty out there who qualify for service with the economy the way it is," Nordyke said.

Nonetheless, filling the slots is more challenging than usual because the spaces open up in January rather than the start of the school year when most families are searching for preschools to place their children, Nordyke said.

"People typically think of school starting in September so families who possibly didn't get in, in September, don't think about completing applications and don't think of the possibility we would start classes in January," Nordyke said.

"I think a lot of people don't know about it," added Lyn Segundo, family advocate at the new Foothills Center.

The state funding for additional slots did not cover the cost of establishing new locations and spaces, including the cost of renovations, new materials and equipment, so providers were allowed to use the funding from the first half of the school year to fund those expenses, Nordyke said.

Children from families who meet federal poverty criteria are eligible to apply for both Head Start and Oregon Pre-Kindergarten. Annual income guidelines to qualify are no more than $21,200 for a family of four. People who have recently been laid off also could qualify.

Family advocates from the new Foothills Head Start earlier this week stood outside Food-4-Less to hand out pamphlets and applications for the preschool program.

Some of the families haven't heard about Head Start or that it is free-of-charge and provides transportation and health screenings to children, Segundo said.

"I didn't know about the program until I saw it on a flier and in the newspaper," said Food-4-Less employee Raquel Rodriguez, mother of a 2-year-old boy and 3-month-old girl. "That's awesome that it's free because I only make $8 an hour and am having to pay $254 every two weeks for child care."

Angel Purnell, who was shopping at Food-4-Less and received a flier, said she wants to send her daughter to Early Head Start for babies and toddlers to give her a step up on her education.

Nordyke said it's not unusual for Head Start to recruit families at laundry mats, grocery stores and even door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods, as its mission is to find and serve children with the greatest need. That includes children with disabilities, she said.

Studies suggest a preschool program such as Head Start can save taxpayers later because children who participate in the program perform better later in school, are more likely to graduate and less likely to become involved in crime.

For more information, see www.socfc.org on the Web, or call 541-734-5150. Information on Oregon Pre-Kindergarten is available at www.ocdc.net or 488-6919.