Home Away From Home

By Kay Mills — April 01, 1998 30 min read

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.”

The children at the Westley center and other migrant programs also face emotional uncertainties.

Today, children entering the program in Westley most frequently have problems with their teeth. When parents are on the move or exhausted when they come in from the fields, it’s often easier to pop a bottle in the children’s mouths than to feed them healthy vegetables and fruit, said Noni De La Rosa, Westley’s health aide. The sugar in the milk eats away at tooth enamel. Two area dentists donate time to check the children’s teeth. In addition, a local Elks Club provides a technician who does vision screenings, and a Lions Club helps pay for needed glasses. Teachers had noticed that one little girl had trouble finding things; it turned out she needed glasses and had just received them when I visited.

The children at the Westley center and other migrant programs also face emotional uncertainties. It’s hard enough on some children with settled lives to be left with strangers first thing in the morning. For the youngster whose family uproots itself often, that can be particularly traumatic. One morning, little Ruben, new to the center and wearing an oversized Dallas Cowboys cap, would sit only with his mother, who stayed with him in the classroom that day. The next day, she had to go to work, and he cried and cried. Occasionally, he’d run to the window and look out and cry. Anyone who came in the classroom door picked him up; he’d be quiet for a moment and then start to cry again. Elvira Garza and the other staff members spoke gently with him and let him walk hand in hand with them as they moved around the classroom. As the children played outdoors, Garza put Ruben on a seat at the back of a tricycle; he managed to flash a wan smile as another child pedaled him down the walkway. He smiled a bit more as Garza ran sand through his fingers and helped him fill a small pail. Later, he ate his snack quietly, but his big eyes still held the look of a lost little boy.

Ismelda Cantu, an energetic woman in her late 30s who is the Westley center supervisor, knows all about the uncertainties of migrant life. Her own family, which spent each winter in McAllen, Texas, followed the crops into Illinois, Colorado, and California until she was about 11 years old. She would go to the fields with her parents and stay in the car with some of her brothers and sisters. “They’d pack two lunches—one was for us—and tell us not to get into theirs,” she said. “Sometimes we couldn’t help it, and we’d get into trouble.” Often the family worked in nearby Patterson, where Cantu now lives with her husband, Gerardo Barrera, an auto mechanic, and their daughter, Nelly.

“I remember we’d go into a school and be there maybe two days,” Cantu said. “There was no work, and we had to move out.” In other places, she recalled, “you’d finally make a friend, and then you’d be gone.”

Sometimes when they were in Patterson, Cantu and her younger brothers and sisters—she was the middle child of 13—attended Head Start. Back then, Head Start was housed in barrackslike buildings. Today, there is a gleaming new infant and toddler center in Patterson, complete with a spotless diaper-changing area, comfortable chairs, cribs, and colorful toys. Around the corner is a new Head Start center for older children.

Cantu dropped out of high school in 10th grade to help support her family. Even earlier, she remembered, she was cutting asparagus in Illinois and picking potatoes in Idaho. By 15, she was in the fields full time, thinning plants or picking tomatoes. “We’d be at work not long after 5 a.m.—as soon as you could see anything,” she said. “You were lucky if you still lived at home because your parents would make your lunch. Once I got married, I made the lunch, and I’d have to wake my husband up and tell him they were blowing the horn for us to go—they wouldn’t wait.”

Like Cantu, most of the staff at the Westley center had once worked in the fields.

As a teenager, she didn’t mind the work. She’d have a radio and her friends there with her. When the day was over, she said, “you’d come home and slather Noxzema on your red face because your boyfriend was coming over.”

She’d go to work as early as possible and stop by early afternoon. “In the heat, the tomato plants would flop over, and you couldn’t work as well. Even with the machines, we’d have to pick by hand the ends of the rows—las cabazeras—where the machines would turn. Sometimes my husband and I drive along, and I see the people out in the fields and I tell him when I look at that that we are so lucky we aren’t there anymore. I really feel for these parents.”

Like Cantu, most of the staff at the Westley center had once worked in the fields. Secretary Estella Martinez, who had been with Head Start 23 years, started picking crops when she was 10 years old. She remembers moving her little brother in a hammock from under one tree to the next when the family was picking fruit or nuts. “I hated to pick grapes,” she said. “The vines were sticky, and spiders hid in them. You used a little knife to cut off the whole bunch of grapes, and if you didn’t watch out, you’d cut yourself, too. I told my mother I would work anywhere—just please don’t make me pick grapes.”

Martinez, who began with Head Start as an aide, helped open the Westley center each morning. Clearly an ardent supporter of the program, she asked cheerfully, “What other secretaries go to work at 5 a.m.?”

Workers of Mexican origin have long been a mainstay of the labor force in the San Joaquin Valley, whether braceros—workers brought to the United States temporarily to pick crops—or today’s migrant families, some of which remain in the United States in the off-season. These workers may be poor, but the land they work on is rich—and full of contrasts. On one side of the highway, drivers roaring up Interstate 5 pass an unending sea of green trees and fields made possible by irrigation. Rising abruptly on the other side of the interstate are rolling, grass-covered hills, turned a tawny brown in the summer heat and looking from a distance like misplaced sand dunes.

Westley, a town of 500 people, elevation 85 feet, was settled in 1888 around land owned by John Westley Van Benschoten. It is on the northwest end of the San Joaquin Valley, which lies between the Sierra Nevada on the east and the Coast Range to the west. San Francisco is northwest of the valley, Sacramento due north, and Los Angeles due south. Originally inhabited by the Yokut and Miwok Indians, the area drew little attention until after the gold rush because neither the Spanish nor the Mexicans set up missions in the area. Cattle ranches and wheat farms were established after the gold rush, and the area often saw battles over water rights. The federal government’s Central Valley Project, begun in the 1930s, crisscrossed the area with irrigation canals, allowing farmers to diversify their crops. In Westley today, there is a warehouse, a grocery store, a hotel and restaurant, a post office, and a few car repair shops. The nearest city is Modesto, the county seat, about half an hour’s drive away.

One day, Cantu drove me into the fields to see if we could find the kind of tomato machine she rode as a young woman. A suburbanite, I had never heard of tomato machines, and my ignorance astounded and amused Cantu’s co-workers. Not far from the Westley camp, we saw a clump of parked cars, which always meant crop work nearby. Obligingly, at just that moment, there came one of the machines that picked the tomatoes, plant and all, and conveyed them to workers riding on the truck along either side. Wearing hats and often plastic sheeting or garbage bags to protect them from squirting tomatoes and the ever-present dust from the fields, the farmworkers cleaned and sorted the tomatoes. Toilet or water breaks were few, and the conditions were clearly exhausting. More than one Head Start staff member told me that she began working with young children after deciding that she did not want to spend the rest of her life riding a tomato machine.

Head Start staff showed Cantu how to apply to become an instructional aide and prodded her along the way.

Married at 18, Cantu had a daughter, whom she enrolled in Head Start. She started to volunteer for the program, she said, “probably because I didn’t want to let go.” She started wondering, “What does it take to work here?” Soon she began substituting as an aide for the program and became motivated to earn her high school diploma. “Somebody out there is telling you there is something else you can do,” she said, “and you’re realizing that you could do it.” Cantu found going off to Modesto Junior College “the scariest thing,” especially her first class in child development. “There were several of us, and when we got our first papers back, they were full of red marks, mainly for the grammar,” she said. “But they helped us. The college got us a tutor who went over our papers with us before we turned them in. So when that was over, I thought, I survived this. I think I can do another.” Now she’s only a few courses shy of receiving her associate of arts degree and hopes to attend California State University-Stanislaus, in nearby Turlock.

“My life was in the fields,” she said. “My parents had maybe a 5th grade education. They didn’t discourage education, but they never encouraged it. For us, making a living, putting food on the table, surviving, was more important.” Working in the fields, she added, was “all we knew. That was the norm.”

Head Start staff showed her how to apply to become an instructional aide and prodded her along the way. “The people in Head Start could do things your parents couldn’t do for you,” she said, her eyes starting to mist over. Having overcome her hesitancy about public speaking, she has talked with local high school students about the importance of planning for the future. There are things you can do, she told them.

One of the Head Start staff members who encouraged Cantu—sometimes pushing her to do jobs she feared she couldn’t do—was Pearlene Reese, who was the Westley center supervisor before leaving to run the countywide program. When Reese left Westley, she asked Cantu, who had moved quickly from aide to teacher to head teacher at Patterson, to take over for her. “She was the first one to tell me I had all this potential,” Cantu remembered. “I think I told her no at least six times. I was afraid. I didn’t want to fail. I liked what I was doing.” But Reese ultimately wore her down, and she’s been Westley’s supervisor since 1991.

Reese had needed similar prodding years earlier. The oldest of eight children, she came with her family to the agricultural town of Dos Palos in Merced County in the 1930s. Her father had ridden a freight train from Arkansas to see whether he could find work. Over the years, a small black community developed in Dos Palos as relative followed relative. “Cotton is king over that way,” Reese said. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade to work in the fields.

“In 1965, Head Start came to town,” she said. “We had never heard of anything like this before. We thought it was almost too good to be true. It was going to provide all these services for children. And there were no jobs in this little town. We were excited to think about having a year-round job. I was 32 and never had had a year-round job at that point.”

Reese radiated enthusiasm when she talked about Head Start, for it had changed her life. In 1965, she applied to be a community aide because she felt she lacked the skills to be a teacher. The superintendent of schools, who sat in on all the Head Start job interviews, noted that she had been a regular volunteer at the local health clinic and thought she had promise. She could be an instructional aide, he said, on the condition that she go back to school. “There is not a choice,” he told her.

Reese took classes in child development and finished junior college after years of work. She didn’t really know what she was doing, she explained, and because of that lack of focus she had far more credits than she could transfer to the university. She received a bachelor of arts degree from what was then Stanislaus State and in 1986 earned a master’s degree in education from California State University-Sacramento. Often, she would work from early in the morning at Westley and then drive to Turlock or 80 miles each way to Sacramento to take evening classes.

Despite Pearlene Reese’s obvious fervor for her job, the migrant Head Start program she headed was hardly without its problems.

“If Head Start never came,” Reese said, “I don’t know where my life would have gone. More than what it did for the children, it’s what it did for the adults.”

Reese has applied the same lesson she learned from that long-ago superintendent in dealing with others unsure of their abilities. Angelita Aguiniga, Westley’s head teacher, started volunteering when one of her younger children was in Head Start and, like so many others, thought, “Why can’t I work here instead of working out in the fields?” By then, she had nine children—eventually she had 12—so going back to school was difficult. Her husband worked nights at a packinghouse, and she worked days as an instructional aide.

“Then Pearlene asked me to become a teacher,” Aguiniga said. “ ‘I don’t think I’m ready,’ I told her. ‘You’re either ready or not. You’re either going to be a teacher, or you’re out. There’s no reason for you not to,’ Pearlene told me. I was scared. I didn’t think I could do it. But it was a good decision. She helps you along.”

Aguiniga showed her own determination once she started back to school. Every one of her children got an education—they’ve all graduated from universities, and one has a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley—so she decided she could get an education, too. Seventy years old, she needed three more classes to receive her associate of arts degree. “I have until the year 2000, so even if I do retire, that’s what I want to do. I will have accomplished my goal.”

Despite Pearlene Reese’s obvious fervor for her job, the migrant Head Start program she headed was hardly without its problems. Turnover among teachers in Head Start anywhere is high because of low pay, and that is especially troublesome in the small communities that migrant Head Start programs serve. How many people want to live in Westley? A beginning Head Start teacher in the Stanislaus program earned $8.50 an hour for an eight-hour day in 1995. Teachers could count on working about 165 to 170 days a season, which translated into at least $11,220 a year. Reese estimated that her program lost about 25 percent of its staff each year. She could finally offer them health, dental, and life insurance, so she was able to retain some of the more-qualified people.

“But we often don’t attract the caliber we need because migrant Head Start still is not viewed as mainstream,” she said. “We are the stepchild of the child development community. The families you serve don’t have any status, so you don’t. There’s not a lot of value placed on what we do. Our programs are often unseen. Nobody knows they’re out there, tucked away in farm labor camps.” At one particularly remote center, she said, she lacked enough aides to handle the number of children for which the program was licensed, so some 20 children were going without Head Start services.

Reese was critical of the rush to expand Head Start to serve more children without adequate preparation time. Between 1989 and 1993, for example, President George Bush presided over an expansion of the program from one that served 450,970 children at the beginning of his administration to one that enrolled 713,903 when he left office. Because of the expansion, Reese said, migrant Head Start found itself competing for staff with other local Head Start programs. Nationally, Head Start needed to do more to address the problems of training staff and providing benefits such as health insurance and retirement income. “We need to stop and do what we do well,” Reese said. “People truly question what kind of educational program we offer when we open at 5 a.m. They think it’s just baby-sitting. People also have problems with our serving infants and toddlers and having a shorter year.”

Some people might say that children should learn all these things at home, that the state is taking over the parents’ role.

What these doubters may not know is that babies are constantly learning. Everything is new. “The first thing the children learn is to be social, to be able to detach from their mothers,” Angelita Aguiniga told me. “They learn to trust us, to depend on us to take care of them. They have brothers and sisters, sure, but they need to learn how to socialize with other children and with children their own age. Then they start being self-sufficient and feed themselves. First they eat with their hands, and then they learn how to eat off a spoon. We introduce them gradually to different varieties of food, such as rice and meat and other table food. They are also learning a routine. Mothers lay them down when they want because it’s one-on-one, but they need to learn a schedule, such as not having a bottle all the time. They develop fast. If the mothers bring the infants [to Head Start] constantly, they adjust better.”

Some people might say that children should learn all these things at home, that the state is taking over the parents’ role, I suggested. “Some of the parents are so young, they don’t know what to do,” Aguiniga replied. “We had a girl 12 years old in here the other day to register her baby in the program. Twelve years old! A baby with a baby. Having a baby is the easiest thing. Taking care of it is something else.”

It’s hard just to survive, Aguiniga said. “I know. We used to follow the carrots. We worked in the Imperial Valley before we settled in the Turlock area. You don’t have time when you’ve worked in the field all day; you’re so exhausted. If you have five or six kids, you don’t have any energy. I can see how they need this program. I drive from Turlock every day, and I see those women already out in the field, and I think, ‘Dear Lord, thanks to God, I’m not out there.’ That gives me more energy to do what I do.”

Aguiniga needed that energy when the children woke up from their afternoon naps. Little Jennifer circulated through the whole room, pulling out toys, examining books, and exploring every nook and cranny. She and several of the other children, all under 1 year old, held on to a banister and climbed up four steps to a wooden slide. All the while, Aguiniga or one of the other teachers sat on the little steps to lend a steadying hand and make sure no one took a tumble. In the infant-care center, each staff member had three children whom she watched over and for whom she had the prime responsibility. But the center was open such long hours that some teachers came in early and left early, so the children had to get used to being tended by a number of adults.

Several aides had quit because Westley was too far from Modesto, where they lived. Westley’s location and low pay made it difficult for Cantu to find staff that had already earned six class units in child development as required. “I told Pearlene I need to hire people—and fast,” she said. “The children are here, and the parents need these services.” Cantu hired seven parents in entry-level jobs as aides, and they were getting on-the-job training as well as special classes at the center. “These parents deserve a chance,” Cantu said. “Obviously someone has to train them because even though they’re parents, they still need some teaching on how to care for children.”

First and foremost, these new aides needed to learn about the health and safety of the children. Cantu and Aguiniga also stressed that anyone working with these children—especially the infants—really had to love kids, otherwise the children could quickly get on their nerves. One young woman said after the first day that it seemed as though there were 100 kids in the center. The second day, her stress level was better, and it only seemed like 75. By the third day, she was doing fine.

“They have to be observant,” Aguiniga said. “They have to have eyes in the backs of their heads. I tell them to sit where they can have a view of the whole room. They have to see what kids are doing where they might get hurt and head it off. Everyone is really responsible for all the children.”

In Head Start, you never know what has made an impression during any particular day or season.

Aguiniga, Cantu, and other senior staff were doing what Head Start leaders must do—creating their own teachers—because the program rarely has trained people flocking to its doors. Working with Modesto Junior College and helped by financing from the state, Head Start teachers can receive money to cover tuition and books for some classes. The Stanislaus County Office of Education, the grantee that oversees the seven-county migrant program, also offers intensive teacher training twice a week. One aide said the training helped her both in dealing with the parents and in understanding the children. Infants and toddlers, she said, can’t tell you what they are feeling, so “every clue they give you, you have to keep in mind.”

At first, it was hard going back to school, many of the teachers said. Elvira Tamez, whose toddler class I visited, told me that she started at Westley in 1974 as an aide. She was 18 then. She had eloped at 13 and had had three children in Head Start. Her daughter, she said, “helps me with the commas in the papers we write because I only went to 5th or 6th grade.”

Miriam Ortega was a teacher in a literacy initiative run by the Merced Migrant Head Start Services, part of the migrant program. Ortega’s daughter, Jahdaiz, graduated in August 1995 from Head Start in the Planada migrant labor camp outside Merced. Encouraged to become active in Head Start by Planada social worker Mary “Sukie” Contreras, Ortega had been president of the local and regional parent policy councils.

“When I started working with Head Start,” Ortega told me, “I had a lot of trouble with my family, with my husband. When I would go to meetings, to classes, my husband would get mad. Today he pushes me to go to school.” Two years ago, he also started back to school to learn more English. The year after I met Ortega, she became a Head Start aide, continuing to work with the program because, she said, “I’d like to give back all the things they gave me. I feel close to the program. I love this program.”

Involving parents who have worked in the fields all day can be difficult, but the Head Start staff has found that if programs are built around the children, parents will come. They also like picnics and celebrations. Sukie Contreras, in her 20th season with Head Start, said the most effective means of involving parents is “to make them welcome, to make them feel good about themselves. They always have something to teach me.”

Parents flocked to the Planada Head Start graduation I attended. Mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas, little brothers and sisters all put their folding chairs along the edge of a concrete basketball court at the migrant labor camp early on a Friday evening after the day’s work in the fields. Inside the Head Start center, there was a swirl of activity as parents brought in dishes of enchiladas, frijoles, ensalada, tortillas, and other food for the potluck supper that would follow the graduation. Some of the graduates, about 20 in all, walked carefully around the room in their little caps and gowns, while others delighted in darting about. With everyone assembled outside, the children marched to their seats opposite their elders. Head Start teachers nudged reluctant 2- and 3-year-old performers onto center stage to sing short songs, and then the graduates paraded up to center supervisor Anna Moreno to receive their certificates.

In Head Start, you never know what has made an impression during any particular day or season. Is it a graduation like the one at Planada? Or maybe a ride on the back of a tricycle, or nap time, or a trip to the local elementary school and the first meal at the cafeteria? What sticks in a child’s mind?

When Ismelda Cantu was in Head Start as a youngster in Patterson, the center had some clothing someone had donated. “There was a red velvet dress that made me feel so good,” she said. “I used to like to come in and put on that little dress. I loved it. But I didn’t know what I looked like in it because we didn’t have mirrors in the classrooms then. One day, a teacher knew how I felt about that dress and walked me to the bathroom and held me up to see myself in the mirror in that little red dress. You remember when somebody made you feel special.”