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Several years ago, journalist Kay Mills set off on a journey across the United States to visit Head Start centers in a wide range of communities. One of the major surviving battalions of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start provides comprehensive early childhood education for the nation's poorest children. Mills traveled from a Montana Indian reservation to the Mississippi Delta, from the streets of South Central Los Angeles to the hills of West Virginia. Her goal: to go beyond a discussion of policy and tell the nation about the federal program's many successes. "I wanted to show the human face of Head Start," Mills writes in the introduction to her new book Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start, published this month by Dutton. "What I found in my travels was a simple but incandescent idea: Poor children can benefit from the same 'head start' on learning that better-off parents can give their children." Here, in the following excerpt, we pick up with Mills in a California community of migrant farm workers.

In California's fertile San Joaquin Valley, Head Start centers offer migrant farm workers and their children a home.

The fields and orchards of California's San Joaquin Valley were still cool, quiet, and dark at 5 a.m. as mothers and fathers in long-sleeved shirts, work pants, and heavy shoes hustled into the Westley Child Development Center, their children wrapped in light blankets and asleep in their arms. Soon enough it would be 100 degrees amid the rows of tomato plants and at the canneries where these migrant laborers worked. For the moment, though, a sliver of moon and one or two stars lit the flat, lushly green landscape, and a bird sang softly outside the one-story brown buildings. The children barely stirred as their parents and teachers laid them on foam-rubber pallets and covered them. For the moment, all one could hear, despite the presence of several dozen children, was the hum of the washing machine in the hallway and the rare cry of a child who didn't want Mama to leave.

Elvira Garza, Sofia Gonzalez, Elvira Tamez, Maria Cabrera, and other teachers and aides were settling the children. Tamez was tuning a radio in her classroom, futilely searching for some soft music. One teacher spoke quietly to a father wearing a seed-company cap about some business that needed attention.

Another caught up on paperwork as the children slept. When the parents signed their children in at 5:05 and 5:10 and 5:20, they wrote on a clipboard where they were working that day, in case of emergency: Turlock Fruit Co., Tri M Farms, Stanislaus Foods. Some had hourlong drives ahead in the gathering light; others needed only to go toward nearby Patterson or Modesto, where green beans or ripening tomatoes were being cultivated or apricots picked. Many of the families lived in the trailerlike, low-rent housing in the Westley camp that encircled this migrant Head Start center. Less than five miles away, truckers and vacationers sped up California's midsection along Interstate 5, barely blinking at the Westley exit.

In the infant-care building, Maria Cabrera and other staff members carefully checked over each arriving child for diaper rash, insect bites, scratches, bruises, and other possible health problems. Especially on Mondays, after weekend trips, the little ones often had diaper rashes, which usually cleared up quickly.

Parents brought in a change of clothing for their children, turning over the little plastic carrying cases to one of the teachers and receiving them again at the end of the day. One mother in a tomato-speckled T-shirt dropped her baby off at the end of her 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at Stanislaus Foods so she could sleep while her husband worked. Like the older children, these youngsters would sleep until 7:30 or 8 a.m. and then be given their bottles of milk or fed around low crescent-shaped tables by several of the six or seven women who cared for them during the day. Thirty-eight infants were enrolled in this part of the Head Start program, and by 6:30 a.m. 14 of them had been dropped off.

Head Start for migrant workers' children follows their parents' seasons on the soil.

Just as migrant farm labor has changed over recent decades, so, too, has care for the children of those who work in the fields. Head Start for migrant workers' children follows their parents' seasons on the soil. Some farmworkers may move less frequently today because in some communities better housing has been built for them—better, but not always good. Nonetheless, a Head Start survey showed that two-thirds of the families served made two or three moves a year. Today, if they arrive at a migrant labor camp in time to secure housing, many stay put and drive to various jobs in the area as the crop seasons change, at least in central California. The more experienced among them work every season at nearby canneries.

In the past, parents either took their youngsters into the fields with them or left them in their cars, under a shade tree if there was one. Now, in communities from Laredo, Texas, to Sunnyside, Washington, and from Winter Haven, Florida, to Presque Isle, Maine, there are migrant Head Start centers.

Nationwide, the bulk of Head Start students are 3- and 4-year-olds. When Congress extended the program's life in 1994, it authorized creating pilot projects to provide the program's comprehensive services for infants and toddlers—from newborns to 3-year-olds—at selected Early Head Start centers. Of necessity, such care has long been part of the migrant program: In more settled communities, working parents might have someone to care for their babies, but among the migrants that's not as likely. Migrant Head Start thus needs more teachers and aides because the ratio of staff to infants is 1-to-3, whereas in classrooms for older children it is 1-to-8. Westley, for example, had 90 infants and toddlers under 3 years old at the peak of the 1995 season, as well as 150 children from 3 to 5 years old.

Regular Head Start programs usually follow the traditional September-to-June school year and run half a day. Migrant Head Start programs open when the families arrive in an area. For example, the Westley center generally opens in April and runs through November or early December as parents pick cherries and apricots, then tomatoes, melons, cauliflower, and green beans, and later walnuts and almonds. All but a few centers are open at least eight hours a day, often receiving children before dawn and not closing until the parents return from the fields or orchards in late afternoon.

On the West Coast, migrant Head Start programs are operated regionally, whereas one agency—the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project—oversees programs from Florida to Maine. It delegates the actual center operation to agencies like Rural Opportunities Inc., a private nonprofit corporation that during the 1995 season served almost 900 children in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and New York. Overall, the East Coast project has grown from 380 children in three states with a $500,000 budget in 1974 to almost 8,000 children (two-thirds of them under 3 years old) and a budget of $35 million in 12 states. In California, the Westley center is part of the Stanislaus County Child and Infant Care Association, one of the agencies that runs Head Start in a seven-county central California regional program.

Every Head Start center has its routines, and migrant programs are no different. The routines just start earlier. By 7 a.m. at Westley, the sun was up, and a cool breeze was blowing outside. Inside the larger of the center's two buildings, a few children who had just arrived were awake. In one of that building's seven classrooms, several children sat coloring at a kid-sized table while seven 4-year-olds still slept on the blue pallets on the floor.

Across the hall, 20 toddlers were asleep when Elvira Tamez and her colleagues turned the lights on at 7:15 and started gently waking the children, changing diapers. By 7:30, the whole center was astir. Tamez was putting children's shoes on, one after another, calling out, "Next!" as an aide combed a little girl's hair. Shortly before 8, the remainder of the staff streamed in, punching the time clock in the front office near longtime secretary Estella Martinez's desk.

The 22 children sang a song about washing their hands and combing their hair and then lined up to go outside.

By 8, everybody was eating pancakes prepared in the large kitchen down the hall. After the 4-year-olds in Elvira Garza's classroom brushed their teeth, she gathered them around for the traditional Head Start circle time—mostly but not entirely conducted in Spanish at Westley. The 22 children sang a song about washing their hands and combing their hair and then lined up to go outside. Across the hall, in the toddler classroom, little Roberto, not yet 3, was fitting plastic cutouts of a cat, a boat, and a fish into matching frames. He knew the words gato, barco, and pescado.

In the infants' area, one teacher was working with six little ones who were getting used to different shapes and textures—in this case, macaroni. They pounded it, threw it, and put it in their mouths—everything in such exercises has to be edible. Gardenia, an 8-month-old with big eyes and a knockout smile, was stacking blocks with the help of a teacher. At 10:15, the infants had a lunch of mashed peas and bananas, having been there, after all, since 5.

Outside, Miguel was stringing orange and green macaroni with teacher Elvira Tamez and several classmates. Tamez explained that she was working with the children on hand-eye coordination. For a 2-year-old, Miguel was doing quite well. The day was growing pleasantly warmer, not wickedly hot yet, and little knots of children and their teachers sat under trees around the play area. Tamez pointed across the playground to a young woman named Christina Barajas and proudly told me, "That's my daughter. She was in Head Start here. Now she's an aide."

When I came to Westley, Barajas, 24, had been an aide for six years and sometimes substituted as a teacher. It's hard for grown-ups to remember much about their own childhood experiences in Head Start, but Barajas recalled that she would cry when the cots came out because she didn't like to take naps. Married at 14, she, too, picked crops, as her husband still does. Eventually, "I said to my mother, 'Please help me get a job there. I don't want to work in the fields anymore.' "

Soon Barajas, her mother, and other teachers and aides herded the children inside for lunch and then nap time. By 2:30, everyone was up again and having a snack. A few of the parents who had dropped off their children when the center first opened started picking them up. One father had dirt caked on his pants to his knees; a mother collecting her infant son had an orange kerchief under a cap to help keep her head and neck cool in the heat, which had reached 100 degrees. The teachers who opened the center had left by then, and the breeze was hot.

Teachers and aides were methodically changing the babies' diapers, washing their faces, and combing their hair in preparation for their parents' arrival. Jennifer, who was nearly 1 and explored everything, started to stand up in a little chair, and a teacher swooped over to help her down so she wouldn't fall. After 4 p.m., those children who hadn't been picked up yet were all taken to one of the classrooms in the main building so the other teachers could prepare for the next day. Some of the parents who came in at this point had been home to shower and were wearing fresh shorts and shirts.

Children of migrant workers bring with them to Head Start the needs of any poor youngsters who move frequently. These often are medical problems because parents have had no access to health care or time to tend to infections. "I never saw so many ear infections until I started working for Head Start," said Pearlene Reese, executive director of the Stanislaus County Child and Infant Care Association, who had been with Head Start since its earliest days. "I saw children with pus running from their ears. So many of these parents have to make do. The children had parasites or untreated teeth. They were not thriving."

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