By Raymond R. Beltran
“It’s a new day for the neighborhood and what we’re doing for the Head Start program,” said Pilar Montoya, Director of Community Affairs at the Neighborhood Housing Association. “The organization is not what it was before August.”
Last Friday, NHA, the largest provider of the federally funded Head Start program, opened up their Joan Kroc Head Start center to show the community the types of services they offer underserved children.
Last year, NHA was under fire by the Department of Health and Human Services for several deficiencies including finance management, record keeping, enrollment and health and safety, but Montoya says with a new board president and CEO, Rudy Johnson, the group has made a complete turn around in a short period of time.
Head Start is a program that was created in 1965 to, most notably, trump the cycle of poverty in at-risk neighborhoods. The program prepares youth for kindergarten and grade school and offers learning tools to children as young as six months.
A group of parents who were dropping their children off all agreed that if it weren’t for the Head Start program, many would be paying a pretty penny for daycare and ultimately wouldn’t know if their youngsters were getting the same type of education.
DeShay, a Spring Valley mother of a two year old, says her daughter is learning how to use her motorskills, recognizing her ABC’s, colors, potty training and how to communicate as a toddler.
“That’s one of the biggest things to me, especially having a daughter that age,” DeShay says. “And I feel at ease going to work knowing she’s here.”
Instructors at Head Start are said to have a required twenty four college credits in child development departments as opposed to the school district’s twelve.
In the infant to toddler play area at Joan Kroc, instructors have their credentials stapled to the bulletin board. Teachers and aides have their Child Development Teacher Permit, both from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. They’re all CPR certified too.
“Today Head Start is the strongest it’s ever been,” Montoya says “It has been certificated by the federal government and is being run exceptionally well.”
The federal government, who funds the program, audits the NHA every three years to analyze the programs. They focus on safety, finances and the processes to manage the programs, and they reviewed the organization on passed performances based on prior management, says new director of Head Start Norma Johnson.
Montoya says the most significant discrepancy was in enrollment record keeping. This January, the federal government got wind of NHA overestimating the enrollment being submitted. But since, Montoya says they’re at 100 percent and that each site is now tracked by the Promis system, an expensive highly electronically recording program, as opposed to the manual system practiced before August.
“They did everything manually last year,” she says. “They didn’t have the equipment or the know how we do now.”
A February 2006 audit led to the majority of discrepancies discovered. In May, a letter was sent to the NHA to remedy the issues, and by August, there was a new president and with him, a new management team that turned the group around, earning them a certificate of compliance two months ago.
“We’re going to continue to improve,” says Norma Johnson, who’s been with the NHA since the audit letter was sent last May. “We’re going to take it to a hire level.”
She says Head Start will be opening up new sites and taking their music classes, like violin, to other existing sites. But for now monthly meetings and weekly reports are what’s keeping the management team on their toes, say employees.
There are 130 Head Start facilities throughout San Diego with approximately 10,000 youth attending.
Spring Valley mothers Cruz and DeShay drive a half an hour through traffic from Spring Valley to take their children to Head Start at Joan Kroc Center and are impressed with the classes for their children.
Cruz says that even if mothers stayed home, many wouldn’t have the skills to home-school their toddlers to prepare them for preschool the way Head Start’s educators do.
“Even if parents were going to stay home,” says Cruz, “how many parents would sit there and teach their children their colors? Like kids are supposed to be preparing for college in high school, here, our kids our preparing for preschool … The [daycare] experience is not the same.”
Patty Watson instructs the Home Base program, where she visits up to twelve families once a week who have personal issues with taking their children to the Head Start facilities.
“You get close to the families,” Watson says. “They’ll let you know what they want to work with.”
Thirty year-old stay home mother of four, Erika Sayas, says that for her, Home Base is the best choice because she only wants her children to attend a few hours a week, plus, she says she could use the techniques she’s learned from Watson’s visits.
“I’m learning to better educate my kids,” Sayas says. “The teacher looks at the way my kids behave and if she sees something wrong, she teaches me.”
Sayas’s seven year-old son had a speech impediment and has, in the past seven months, learned how to speak more.
“He plays a lot more now,” Sayas said in relief. “He’s talking more and he’s just more independent … This is a wonderful world … and I just want the best education for my kids.”