Video by Bill Sorem, Text by Nancy Johnson, TC Daily Planet
A group of forty low-income parents in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood sat in quiet seriousness last week, waiting for U.S. Representative Betty McCollum’s visit to their Head Start program. They came to hear about the fate of federal funding for programs like the Ruth Benner Head Start Center in St. Paul.
It would be devastating to children and families if the Senate sustains the recent cuts made in the Republican controlled House,“ McCollum told the group. “The cuts include $1 billion from Head Start and $39 million from child care.” Over 17,000 children attend Head Start and Early Head Start in Minnesota and 12,000 of them would lose their spots.
McCollum supports Head Start’s track record as the nation’s quality preschool program for very low-income children and their families. Acknowledging that Congress must tackle the budget deficit, she suggested that instead of targeting Head Start opportunities for low-income preschoolers, Congress should look at options such as cutting the Army’s sponsorship of a car in NASCAR, saving taxpayers about $7 million per year.
One third of the parents listening were men. Head Start family outreach workers help both mothers and fathers in the program set and reach their own personal goals along with parenting goals. When she finished speaking, one of the fathers told the Congresswoman that his experience as a Head Start dad encouraged him to seek new skills, build his credit, and find a decent job. His participation on the center’s Policy Council boosted his self esteem and leadership skills. “I just needed the opportunity that Head Start gave me,” he said.
Over 27 million children and their families across the United States have been served by Head Start. From its inception 45 years ago, Head Start focused on comprehensive services, nutrition, health screening and access to health care, parenting support and education, and empowering parents to set and reach their own education and career goals.
Head Start promotes school readiness by enhancing children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Every Head Start program must meet rigorous standards for all of their services whether they serve families in a large metropolitan area or a small rural community, on a tribal reservation or in a farm worker camp.
To enroll, a family’s income must be below the poverty line. While more than fifty percent of the parents at the Ruth Benner Center are employed, their average annual income is just $9,387. The 3,364 teachers, directors, bus drivers, and cooks working in Head Start programs in Minnesota are paid an average salary of $23,211 and nearly one-third are former or current Head Start parents.
The teaching staff at Ruth Benner honed their practice for enhancing children’s early reading and pre-math skills through participating in Words WORK, an early literacy research pilot funded by the St Paul Foundation. Safiya Ali, a bilingual teacher and college graduate, said that she discovered her passion for teaching young children through working at Head Start. Tracy Galatz, Center Manager, explains that the center’s language-rich environment and parent involvement activities help children who are the most likely not to be ready for kindergarten to reach milestone skills and abilities. The center also hosts a St Paul Public Schools Kindergarten Roundup event and other kindergarten transition activities involving family members and their children.
“Head Start opens doors for preschoolers and their parents,” said Galatz. “We believe in partnering with parents, building their competence and their connections to community support. We’re partners with them in developing their children on a day-to-day basis. The opportunity to participate in decision making on the center’s Policy Council builds parents’ confidence. The transformation is amazing. Some of our parents actually begin to see themselves as leaders in the community.”
Congratulating the parents for their efforts, McCollum encouraged them to exercise the positive impact they can have. “Don’t underestimate your power as a parent,” she said. “Read to your child, talk with them, and explain things to them. You are the most influential person in your child’s life. You also need to raise your voice. The Republicans’ cuts go against providing opportunity for every child, every family, no matter the condition that they are born into, to make their American dreams come true.”