Umatilla County may not have any five-star hotels or restaurants, but it can boast the state's first five-star Head Start program.

Oregon's leaders in early childhood education converged on Pendleton this week as the state Early Learning Council met with the Oregon Board of Education for the first time. As part of the trip, the Early Learning Council awarded Umatilla-Morrow Head Start a five-star rating for quality childcare -- only the first such rating to be bestowed on a Head Start program.

Early Learning Council president Pam Curtis called the occasion "a momentous day."

"This is no small accomplishment," she said.

Umatilla-Morrow Head Start's Milton-Freewater center was the first to actually receive the coveted five-star rating, but its centers in Hermiston, Pendleton, Umatilla and Irrigon quickly followed. Director Cathy Wamsley said a few more Head Starts around the state will likely achieve the status eventually, but Umatilla-Morrow was the most prepared when the Early Learning Council developed the childcare quality rating system last year.

Wamsley was also recognized with an award during the Early Learning Council's visit. She and House Speaker Tina Kotek, who couldn't attend the Pendleton meeting, were both given the 2014 Lynne Angland Award for their work on early childhood education.

Early Learning Council member Roberta Weaver praised Wamsley's leadership and creativity in growing Umatilla-Morrow Head Start into a multi-service agency that includes services like Court Appointed Special Advocates and WIC (Women, Infants and Children).

"You see the mission broadly in an integrated way, not narrowly, and that kind of vision is what we hope to implement throughout the state," Weber said.

Pulling health care, nutrition, parenting classes, education, emotional-social development and other aspects of early childhood welfare under one umbrella is the central mission of the Early Learning Council. Right now the council is reviewing applications for a second wave of Early Childhood Hubs commissioned by the state legislature last year.

The regional hubs will bring agencies such as Head Start, public schools, educational service districts and the medical community together to collaborate on programs to serve young children and their parents. The idea is to avoid duplication of services and help connect providers to families who may be in contact with one agency but not another.

Six of the 16 available contracts for hubs have been awarded. The regional hub created by Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties did not make the cut in the first round, but at the time InterMountain Education Service District director Mark Mulvihill said feedback from the state indicated the problem was in the way the grant was written, not the hub structure itself.

At Thursday's Early Learning Council meeting Megan Irwin, the state's Early Learning System Design Manager, gave an update on the hub process. She said when staff present the next round of hub applications in June the council will have some "very difficult choices."

The state allowed counties to hash out among themselves how they wanted to divide into regions. But the law that formed the hubs only allowed for 16, yet 19 have formed. After the Early Learning Council awards the 10 remaining contracts it will have to decide what to do with the remaining counties that didn't win approval.

The Blue Mountain Early Learning Hub, led by Umatilla-Morrow Head Start and InterMountain ESD, is one of the hubs that will await the council's decision in June.

Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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