Burke receives award for early childhood work

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Sharon Burke

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Sharon Burke, Early Childhood Programs Director for Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation (NEICAC), has received the Iowa Head Start Association Administrator of the Year Award.


The honor takes into account the candidate’s training and qualifications, length of service, special contributions to the success of the local program and traits that stand out and have fostered their success and that of the program.


Burke was nominated by a staff member.


“It was exciting. I don’t really like a lot of attention, but I was pleased and honored,” she said. 


Burke has been in early childhood for over 30 years, since graduating from the University of Northern Iowa. She began her work in daycare and did some school para work before joining NEICAC around 25 years ago.


“I’ve been in early childhood my whole life,” she shared. “I started with Northeast Iowa Community Action in June 1999. At that time, I was a long-term sub, so I worked 40 hours a week subbing in various classrooms. We have a seven-county area, and currently we have 15 classrooms in 10 different locations. My job at that time was to cover the northern territory.”


Burke took on the assistant Early Head Start coordinator position out of Monona in fall 1999, then became the early childhood programs director in July 2012. 


“I went from overseeing Early Head Start to now overseeing Head Start and Early Head Start,” she explained.


As director, Burke oversees program components and ensures they are following regulations and compliance. She is also responsible for grants that keep programs funded.


“We’re both licensed by the state of Iowa and we’re a federally funded program,” she said. “We have multiple pots of funding.”


“It’s also trying to be on top of what new initiatives are out there and making sure, as a Head Start program, that we’re one of the top operating preschool programs in the area,” Burke continued. “I want to make sure we’re operating 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and helping those parents who are working and going to school and working to make sure parents have an opportunity to be self sufficient.”


Burke said she couldn’t do it without her staff, which includes center managers and program specialists as well as direct line staff like teachers, co-teachers and subs. Early Head Start is strictly home based and includes home visitors and specialists in that department as well. 


Together, they provide an important service for area families.


Few preschool classrooms are similar to Head Start in providing 100 percent free, five days a week, full day coverage—and even full year in the case of “wrap-around” programs.


“We are income-based, so we serve low income,” Burke said, “and Head Start is always about where the highest need is. In Oelwein, I have four classrooms, where in Monona I only have one. It depends where that need is, and of course the size of the communities.”


“It’s extremely important to parents to have those spots, those services,” she continued. “Same with Early Head Start. Because we’re so spread out and there isn’t one pocket where we can offer a center-based Early Head start, we’ve always been home based. Early Head Start has a transition room in Waukon, and that’s a nice opportunity to get kiddos ready for that classroom experience. Between pregnancy and age 3, there are all kinds of changes happening, and it’s very important those kiddos are meeting those milestones.”


Both Head Start and Early Head Start are comprehensive services. Children receive physicals and dental, hearing and vision exams as well as lead and hemoglobin screenings and nutrition services.


“We’re not just about education, but helping the entire family,” Burke stressed. “We focus a lot on child goals as well as family goals to make sure the whole family is moving forward the best they can.”


What has Burke enjoyed most in over 30 years of early childhood experience?


“It’s definitely rewarding to see the growth of kids and parents and being able to see that in the communities,” she responded. “To think, ‘That kid was a Head Start kid. Where are they at today?’ Across the nation, there are some very affluent people who started in Head Start.” 


Burke said her countdown to retirement is approaching. Until then, she hopes to continue embodying the qualities that earned her the Iowa Head Start Association Administrator of the Year Award.


“It’s always making sure I’m providing the best services possible and supporting families the best way I know how and, of course, still supporting staff and making sure we succeed, advocating for funding and making sure we’re still around,” she said.

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