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Migrant Head Start offers child care for laborer families, but many remain wary

Family service workers Yeny Gutierrez and Daniela Hernandez talk to local farm workers about the area’s Migrant Head Start centers.
Family service workers Yeny Gutierrez and Daniela Hernandez talk to local farm workers about the area’s Migrant Head Start centers.
Kyle Spencer/The Hechinger Report
Family service workers Yeny Gutierrez and Daniela Hernandez talk to local farm workers about the area’s Migrant Head Start centers.
Children are often sleeping when they are dropped off and picked up at the Van Allen El Concilio Preschool.
Kyle Spencer/The Hechinger Report

On a sun-drenched afternoon in Central California, Gricelda Mitchell, a Migrant Head Start program director motored up and down the rural roads, stopping at vegetable processing plants and a local farm stand, handing out flyers that advertise the five preschool centers she runs.

“The idea is to have people come to you,” said Mitchell, 36, who was accompanied by family service workers. “But when they don’t, you have to go to them.”

Leaders in the nation’s Migrant Head Start programs, which serve an estimated 34,000 children every year, say filling seats is now one of their toughest challenges.  Migrant workers are often undocumented, and are often hesitant to enroll their young children in government programs.

But ever since states began taking stronger measures to monitor and, in some cases, deport families who are in the U.S. illegally, their reluctance to interact with government agencies has increased even more.  And while President Obama's immigration initiative seeks widespread protection for millions, migrant workers still worry they may be forced to leave.

Today, advocates estimate that nationwide only 19 percent of more than 160,000 eligible children are being served by Migrant Head Start programs, and in California, where approximately 47,000 preschoolers qualify  – more than in any other state – a mere 10 percent are getting placements.  

Some critics have suggested that the lack of demand for the programs, founded in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, means there should be fewer of them.

But Mitchell and her colleagues are taking a different approach in part because of recent studies that indicate how much the children of migrant workers can benefit from early education programs.

Some, like the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, in Arlington, Virginia, keep increasingly close tabs on relocating families to make sure they find programs after each of their moves. Others, like the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, provide bus service. And at centers run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Florida, directors attract families by hiring assistant child care providers directly from the fields.

Directors in Central California, though, are particularly skilled at finding families, according to Cleo Rodriguez, Jr., the executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association. Their approach, he said, is decidedly grassroots. “They need to go straight to where the families are,” he said. “And they really do.”

Indeed, Mitchell says she and her team of family service workers routinely attend Spanish-language church services and look for families at flea markets and laundromats. They also chat up foremen, processing plant managers and grandparents to spread the word about their centers.

In recent years, they have begun distributing bandanas with their contact information printed across the front to workers in the fields. “We know they work because we see people wearing them,” said Tony Jordan, the region’s coordinator for early childhood programs, referring to the bandanas’ use as advertising tool. 

This year the regional office is expected to serve more than 3,000 children, about the same as last year, despite dips in the migrant population here.

Some of the urgency to recruit, here and in other parts of the country, has come from a 2013 report to Congress on dual-language learners in Head Start and Early Head Start programs.  It found that, as a group, poor children from non-English speaking homes arrive in government-funded preschool classrooms with more English language vocabulary delays and fewer books at home than their peers from English-speaking families.

But when they leave high quality preschool programs, they “are better prepared and do better,” than their peers who didn’t get such assistance, according to Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a senior scientist who studies early education programs at The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Diego Garcia, a processing plant worker who sends his three-year-old son, Diego, to one of Mitchell’s programs, says he doesn’t need an expert to tell him that it is helping. Now, his son spends his afternoons drawing, playing with the classroom’s blocks, and absorbing lessons on healthy eating and teeth brushing.

“When he was home during the day, he was playing games and watching TV,” said Garcia. “Now, Diego is learning. He is getting ready for school.” 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.