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Watt Way: Online Magazine

Head Start taught her English. Now a graduate argues early education is even more important in an age of testing

By Carla Guerrero


POMONA – In 1988, when I was four years old, I entered the Head Start preschool program at Arroyo Elementary School in Pomona. I didn’t know any English at the time; both of my parents were Mexican immigrants and spoke only Spanish at home. I confused words like “front” and “back” with each other. I didn’t recognize the number “eight” in English and suffered the humiliation of having my English-speaking classmates make fun at me. I did know my numbers in Spanish, my mom had taught them to me before entering Head Start, but English was something new I was discovering.


By time I entered kindergarten, I was able to understand more English, though I still could not communicate. As the oldest of three sisters, I entered the American public school system in the late 1980s, at the same time when my parents were becoming legal residents of this country under the Immigration Reform andControl Act.  Today, I am finishing my last year of graduate school in the journalism program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. And only now have I begun to understand the significance that a program like Head Start had on my academic life.

9th Street School
Carla Guerrero’s education reporting class at USC Annenberg

A federally-funded program, Head Start is designed to educate, socialize and prepare low-income preschoolers for kindergarten and beyond.  The program is perhaps one of the most important educational offerings in this country today, and it is perhaps an even more valuable tool for the children of immigrants.  Head Start levels the playing field as it prepares low-income preschoolers of any social background—immigrant or native—with the private education that wealthier parents are able to afford for their own preschoolers. For children like me and others, the program paves the way for a more successful educational career in the future.


Head Start’s makeover


Head Start is more than academics, and it always has been. The program, which has served more than 24 million children since its inception in 1965, strives for parent involvement and provides free social services, like vaccines, to preschoolers.  In many locales, Head Start increasingly works in partnership with other child-centered agencies to create wider safety nets and stronger offerings to children who need such services the most.  Pomona Head Start, for example, works with other early education programs like the Los Angeles Universal Preschool Program and the Child Development Resource and Referral Services. Together these programs serve a greater number of families in Pomona and neighboring cities in San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County in an effort  to engage entire families. The stronger connections between agencies that serve children are one of Head Start’s many updates.


Academic curriculum is another one, said Christina Z. Acosta, program assistant of the Pomona Unified School District Child Development office. Across the country, Head Start has long been founded on the notion that emphasizes learning through active involvement. These days, because of the growing emphasis on tests,  preschoolers have been socialized and are familiar with working in a group dynamic by the end of their first year. But they also learn more substantive lessons from reading and higher order thinking skills.  The lessons today differ in significant ways from 1962, when the first Head Start model was developed and used in the now-famous High/Scope Perry Preschool project, a scientific experiment that has been ongoing for the past 40 years that analyzes the educational, social and emotional development of a group of 123 low-income African-American preschoolers in Ypsilanti, Mich. Of those 123 students, 58 were selected to attend a high-quality preschool program that emphasized active involvement and open-ended instruction, The remaining 65 students did not attend preschool. The study has shown that well into their 40s, the students who attended the preschool program have demonstrated higher academic success, more family stability and fewer teen  pregnancies.  Until recently, Pomona Head Start still operated under the old model, but as more weight is given to federal-and state-mandated exams and test scores, students are under more pressure perform better academically.  But Head Start has never been fully funded by the government, and this has dire consequences for the poor and working-class families.


Education the great equalizer


As a result, earlier preparation for school has become increasingly important, especially for working-class and poor students who historically have enjoyed less access to quality education. But not all parents who qualify for Head Start participate in the program because there simply aren’t enough seats. 


My mom found out about Head Start from other moms who lived our trailer park. The main reasons she enrolled me in Head Start, she said, were to learn English, to meet other children my age and to familiarize me with school so that I wouldn’t have a difficult time in kindergarten. Just learning how to stand in line for class, she said, was important.


Both of my younger sisters went to Head Start too. Isaura entered Head Start four years after I enrolled. She wasn’t talking in class and didn’t respond when teachers and students asked her questions. Her teacher thought she had a speech impediment, and Isaura was given speech therapy, free of charge to my family, for the rest of the year and  in kindergarten. By the time she “graduated” from her daily, one-hour speech classes, her therapist told my mom that she had a very intelligent daughter who she needed to take very good care of. True to the therapist’s words, my sister Isaura proved to become her high school valedictorian and is now a sophomore at Stanford University where she participates in class discussions wholeheartedly, without  fears, doubts, or problems articulating her thoughts. My youngest sister, Beatriz, entered Head Start the following year after Isaura. Beatriz cried when she first entered Head Start. She cried nearly every day and didn’t want to stay in the classroom with the other children. My mom said it broke her heart although she knew this was why she enrolled us in Head Start—to become more independent and prepare for us for these types of challenges before kindergarten. Today, Beatriz is a freshman at the University of California at Davis. She enjoys her independence, her classes and her extra-curricular social life—a privilege that only higher education can bring.  But in each of our cases, Head Start provided the running start we needed.


Now completing graduate school, I wonder what my educational experience would have been like without Head Start. Would I be where I am today?  Because of the program, I entered kindergarten with a social, educational and emotional skill set that allowed me to prosper uninhibitedly. I continued in bilingual education until I reached the fourth grade, when I was transitioned out of my Spanish class into an all English classroom. My parents were also key. They instilled in my sisters and me the belief that education is the great equalizer and that with a good education, we could better ourselves. As a second-generation, bilingual, woman of color, I am very fortunate and privileged to be where I am today. Head Start forged the strong foundation needed to put my sisters, myself and countless other Head Start alumni on the road to success.





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