Home Away From Home
|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."