Move over, "American Idol." Destinee has been designated "the star of the day" at her Winooski Head Start class, where everyone gets a turn in the spotlight. The 4-year-old sings along with a dozen other tots led by teacher Jim Berns. They happily follow him on a tune that encourages them to identify wrists, elbows, knees, ankles and other visible body parts. When he points to his armpit, one boy repeats the word "elbow." Hey, anatomy can be a tricky subject.
Since 2000, Berns has been in charge of the afternoon session in a program for kids aged 3 to 5. At just 31, he's already been teaching preschoolers for more than a decade. He also somehow finds time to run Boot Camp for New Dads and Unlimited Fathering Opportunities (UFO), two Lund Family Center parenting workshops.
Raised in Montpelier, Berns has an impish smile, a crown of reddish-blonde curls and a gecko tattoo on his left shin -- evident when he wears cut-offs. At 6-foot-4, he's a lizard-loving gentle giant who towers over the youngsters in his Head Start classroom at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in the Onion City. He shares a home in Essex with a partner and their two adopted sons; the couple is also hoping to adopt a daughter.
Berns initially majored in biology at the University of Vermont, but switched to early-childhood education in his sophomore year because a part-time job at a private preschool proved to be more fun than dissecting frogs. "It really clicked," he recalls. "I found my niche." And he's still having a blast, despite some daunting challenges. Head Start, an outgrowth of the War on Poverty, began in 1965. It now serves more than 900,000 children all over the country with special needs or from low-income or immigrant families. In diverse little Winooski, Berns sees all those circumstances.
SEVEN DAYS: Is there a waiting list?
JIM BERNS: Oh, yes. We never have a problem filling our 10 slots.
SD: Ten? There are 13 kids here today.
JB: Each session of Head Start has 10 slots. But this is a collaboration between Head Start and the Winooski Early Childhood Program... There's a maximum of 15 kids per day in my classroom. The a.m. and p.m. sessions encompass a total of 35.
SD: How many staff members do you have in the morning?
JB: Ellen Goodrich, an Early Essential Education teacher, is here three times a week. We also get two instructional aides and a grandma.
SD: A grandma?
JB: Grandma Virginia. She's from the United Way's Foster Grandparents Program.
SD: Do you get attached to the children?
JB: Yes. Especially when I see them taking such big steps at improvement.
SD: I'm guessing many might have difficult situations at home.
JB: Yes, so we try to involve the families. There's a parent advocate who helps them set goals. We make home visits. I do a few each year myself.
SD: Is the Head Start funding sufficient?
JB: Not exactly. There have been budget cuts. We've had to limit supplies and field trips.
SD: What was the career path that brought you to this point?
JB: After graduating from UVM in 1996, I spent the summer at the same preschool I'd been working at while still a student. But then I took a job at Twin Oaks Kids & Fitness in South Burlington for a year and a half. I left to become a database assistant at IBM. That lasted for eight months. I started my own business in 1998 -- a preschool in Essex called Next Generation. I was putting in 65 hours a week because I had to do everything, so the Head Start schedule seemed more suitable.
SD: Even though you're incredibly busy?
JB: Now, it's closer to 48 hours a week. I came for the flexibility. I can take my own kids to the doctor. I have sick days. When you operate your own business, there's no such thing. And getting summers off is a bonus.
SD: What are your hours here?
JB: I usually get in at about 7:30 in the morning and leave by 4 or 4:30. After work I sometimes have the evening UFO program, which goes for 10 weeks, in this building. The Boot Camp is on a Saturday every other month for dads-to-be.
SD: Do the things you learn about childrearing at home find their way into Head Start or the parenting workshops? And vice versA?
JB: Absolutely. All three experiences feed into each other, especially in terms of behavioral issues. For example, one of my sons is extremely sensitive. He has a hard time handling any criticism or even a raised voice. I can't just send him to his room; I've got to be calm and rational and talk it out. Last year, there was a very similar boy in Head Start. So, when he'd hit or push other children, we'd discuss his behavior rationally. And at Boot Camp, new dads benefit from knowing what an infant is like, what a toddler is like. It helps them when I can say, "Look, I've been there."
SD: What was it like, in terms of the education, going from private preschool to Head Start?
JB: It was a shock at first to be with kids who have such high needs. You have to find different solutions to problems that are behavioral, developmental or language-based. There are children in our morning and afternoon sessions from Vietnam, Russia, Korea, China, Sudan and Somalia. We have one girl who's autistic.
SD: Did you need to acquire additional skills?
JB: We have a week and a half of training each year, plus six other hours of courses at conferences. I probably average about 40. It's important to keep up with all the new techniques and ideas in order to move with the times and not be stagnant. I'm also considering going after a Master's degree in special ed.
SD: Wow. A lot of 31-year-olds don't even know what they want be when they grow up, let alone feel ready to tackle fatherhood.
JB: I wanted to be a parent who's young enough to have the energy it takes; to be able to go to the park or take a hike without feeling tired. And it's great that by the time my kids are in college, I'll only be in my forties!