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Letter to Obama yields surprise gift to Head Start class

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By Andrew Dys
The (Rock Hill) Herald

Head Start teacher Juanita Foster wrote President Barack Obama a letter recently, inviting him to visit and read to her students. He replied in kind - with workbooks on gardening. ANDREW DYS - adys@heraldonline.com

ROCK HILL -- It is not every day that a teacher of 4-year-old kids opens up the mail and finds a letter to her signed by the President of the United States.

But it happened in Rock Hill, at the Head Start early learning program, because teacher Juanita Foster asked President Obama to come to the school and read to her students.

Foster, a teacher for 27 years, the last seven years at Head Start, knew that Obama often stressed the importance of early childhood education. So she wrote a letter and mailed it off.

"I figured it didn't hurt to ask the President of the United States and his wife, if they wanted to come and read to my class," Foster said. "I ask people to come and read all the time."

A couple of weeks later, the mailman arrived. Obama signed the letter that started with: "A great teacher is the single most important factor in the education of our children."

The letter is exactly why there is a Head Start program. It talks about teachers teaching.

"The experience and enthusiasm they bring to the classroom inspires our Nation's sons and daughters to think bigger and set their sights higher, and their dedication has made a difference in the lives of countless young Americans," Obama wrote.

Obama talked about the future and ended by writing, "With students, educators, parents and communities working together, we will uphold America's founding promise that we can make of our lives what we will, and that all things are possible for all people."

Obama thanked Foster, a Rock Hill teacher of little kids who come from low-income families, for her "commitment to this noble cause" of teaching.

"It is fair to say I was overwhelmed," Foster said.

The White House sent boxes of booklets to Foster, workbooks about the gardening project undertaken by the Obama family.

Today, Foster's 20 students will complete the workbooks. The kids' parents have been invited to be a part of a historic lesson.

The fact that the president took a minute to send a letter to Foster and send the booklets to the students, is something this class will never forget, said Ann Cain, education manager for Rock Hill Head Start.

Cain, in education for 45 years, taught at Rock Hill schools and instructed future teachers at Winthrop before taking over the Head Start program 14 years ago.

"Children at this age can learn. They will learn. They do learn," Cain said. "We use an old-fashioned method: work."

"Reading is the key to all education," Foster said. "We read to the students each day. I have people come in and read. These kids are heading off to kindergarten next year - we do all we can to get them ready for their futures."

The kids, age 4, listened and engulfed every word.

Then they counted to fifteen, in English and Spanish.

The kids were asked about the letter from the president. Jayden Richardson said "Obama. His name is Mr. Obama. President."

Karmen Hayes said, "The president sent us a letter. That was nice of him."

In the Head Start center in Rock Hill, there are 14 classes of 4-year-olds, and three classes of 3-year-olds. Some come from single-parent households - just like President Obama. All come from families of low income - just like President Obama.

Maybe one of them, learning to read from Foster, using workbooks sent by Obama, could end up as president someday, too.

After the workbooks are finished, the class is going to draw pictures, and send them to the White House.

"We know that he reads his mail," Foster said.

Obama visited a Head Start class in Pennsylvania last week, where he talked about how Head Start must be accountable and show results, but politicians who want to cut such programs as Head Start have to be accountable, too.

Well, the Rock Hill invitation still stands, Foster said: "If President Obama wants to come and read to my students, he is welcome any time."

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