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On a sun-drenched afternoon in late September, Gricelda Mitchell, a 36-year-old Migrant Head Start program director, drove a white minivan filled with staff members down a dusty farm road 20 minutes outside of Modesto, Calif. She stopped in front of a leafy field where a handful of workers were piling watermelons onto a flatbed truck.

“The idea is to have people come to you,” said Mitchell who was recruiting preschoolers for five Central California Migrant Head Start centers. “But when they don’t, you have to go to them, where your pumpkins are, where your watermelons are, where your tomatoes are.”

Mitchell handed a pile of fliers and bandanas with contact information scrawled across the front to two of her Spanish-speaking family service workers and they climbed out of the van to give the men in the field an overview of the area’s early education programs.

Migrant Head Start
Family service workers Yeny Gutierrez and Daniela Hernandez talk to local farm workers about the area’s Migrant Head Start centers. (Photo: Kyle Spencer)

That afternoon, the team made stops at a vegetable processing plant, a local roadside farm stand, and a housing development bustling with farm workers and their children. All of this was to inform parents about local centers and what they offer.

Leaders of the nation’s Migrant Head Start programs, which serve an estimated 34,000 children every year, say filling seats has been one of their toughest challenges for decades. Migrant workers are often undocumented and in many cases reluctant to take advantage of government-affiliated services. Drought, unemployment and changing migration patterns can make it hard to predict where families need support and how many will arrive in farm towns in any given season.

In recent years, those challenges have intensified, as more and more states have taken stronger measures to monitor and, in many cases, deport families who are here illegally. Families’ reluctance to interact with government agencies has heightened.

Today, advocates estimate that a mere 19 percent of eligible children are being served by Migrant Head Start programs, and in California, which has more eligible children than any other state, a mere 10 percent are getting placements.

Related: Two Head Start Reports Find Stalled Progress And Some Hope

Some Migrant Head Start critics have suggested that the lack of demand for the programs coupled with the limited dollars available to all Head Start programs means that there should be fewer programs for migrant children.

But Mitchell and her colleagues are taking a different approach. They say finding needy students has become a calling and they now take their recruiting efforts as seriously as their educational offerings. The push to recruit children from migrant families is increasingly urgent, they say. Despite continued debate about the long-term impacts of the nation’s Head Start programs, which were founded in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, early childhood experts generally agree that the deficits migrant children face are more striking than those of native English-speaking children from equally poor families.

Recent studies – including a 2013 report to Congress on dual-language learners in Head Start and Early Head Start programs – have found that, as a group, poor children with a limited grasp of English arrive in Head Start classrooms with more English language vocabulary delays, less access to dental and health care and fewer books at home than their English-language peers.

“A lot of our families don’t know what services exist for them. So part of our job is to connect them to assistance out in the community.” — Yeny Gutierrez, a Migrant Head Start staffer in Escalon, Calif.

Children who are not in preschool are brought to fields where they are often unsupervised, toxic pesticides abound and temperatures can rise into the 100s. Some are left with older siblings, or neighbors, who may be overwhelmed by their childcare load.

Cleo Rodriguez, Jr., the executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, said this has meant that program directors have had to spend a lot of time in the field. “They need to go straight to where the families are,” he said. “And they really do.”

Around the country, Migrant Head Start programs are trying various recruiting tactics. At centers run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Southern Florida, directors attract families by hiring assistant childcare providers directly from the fields. Staff members at the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, headquartered in Arlington, Va., keep close tabs on relocating families to help them find Migrant Head Start programs after each of their moves. And the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County provides bus service to its centers in southwest California and has opened centers inside migrant housing developments to increase visibility and make drop-off and pick-up easy for families.

Program directors in Central California are particularly adept at finding families. Janet Orvis-Cook, the executive director of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which oversees Central California’s program and its various providers, says her staff members take a decidedly hands-on approach, designed to target the hardest to reach. “We talk to parents a lot and ask them what works for them,” she said. “We ask: ‘How did you hear about us, and why did you listen?’ We do a lot of brainstorming.”

Related: Head Start Preschool Program Targets Poorest Children

This year the regional office is expected to serve more than 3,000 children, about the same as last year, although many of these students will drop out before the end of the school year.

Shortly before sunup on a recent morning, parents in sweatpants and sneakers carried their sleeping children, many wrapped in fleece blankets, into a darkened classroom at the Van Allen El Concilio Preschool in the rural town of Escalon, one of five programs Mitchell oversees through the local non-profit El Concilio. The parents placed their preschoolers on cozy mats set up by the teachers and hurried off to work.

Migrant Head Start
Children are often sleeping when they are dropped off and picked up at the Van Allen El Concilio Preschool. (Photo: Kyle Spencer)

Many of the children slept one to two more hours, finally waking for breakfast. After downing vanilla yogurt, milk and mixed fruit, they brushed their teeth, and then busied themselves in play centers. The classroom included a math and science area with rocks and pinecones lined up on trays; a wooden block area; an art center with crayons and paper, and shelves for dinosaurs, toy instruments and wooden trucks. Several girls busied themselves in the play kitchen, which housed miniature kitchen items like mixers and cups and plates. They placed loaves of play bread in a pretend microwave and rearranged plastic pineapples, onions and apples in a basket. All of the items in the classroom were labeled with bright, plastic-coated cards in both English and Spanish.

One boy sat at a small desk in front of the classroom’s computer. Using a bilingual learning program, he flipped through online books and games designed to teach kids colors, shapes, and numbers.

Meanwhile, Mitchell and Tony Jordan, the region’s coordinator for early childhood programs, sat nearby in tiny classroom chairs and ticked off a list of shared strategies they used to both recruit and hopefully retain students.

Administrators attend Spanish-language services at local Catholic churches, Mitchell said, along with local flea markets and laundromats the families use. They scour Wal-Mart and chat up foremen, processing plant managers and grandparents to spread the word about their centers.

In recent years, they have begun distributing bandanas with contact information, like the ones her staff members handed to workers in the watermelon fields. They come in bright shades of purple and white, but staff members avoid popular gang colors like red, blue and green. “We know they work because we see people wearing them in the fields,” said Jordan.

“They need to go straight to where the families are.” — Cleo Rodriguez, Jr., the executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association

At the Escalon school, a little girl practiced writing her letters while a teacher prepared for the afternoon art project: making Mexican flags for the next day’s celebration of Mexican Independence Day. On the day’s to-do list: the reading of Tortillas y Cancioncitas (Tortillas and Lullabies), number practicing and tuna fish sandwiches for lunch.

Later that day, in another classroom, children gathered on the carpeted floor beneath a laminated alphabet poster as their teacher read a paperback version of Un Bolsillo Para Corduroy, (A Pocket for Corduroy), an American classic about a teddy bear whose young owner, Lisa, loses him in a laundromat.

“How does Lisa feel?” the teacher asked the children, holding the book up so they could see the colorful pictures of the little lost bear in his green overalls.

“Sad,” one preschooler responded. “Because she lost her friend.”

At one point, when Corduroy accidentally found himself on top of a washing machine, the teacher asked the students where he was. One girl made a playful “tsh tsh” sound and waved her outstretched hand in the air to mimic the noise and movement of a washing machine.

“Yes,” the teacher replied, encouragingly. “But what is it called? Use your words.”

“The washing machine,” several students responded in unison.

Like traditional Head Start, Migrant Head Start offers poor families high-quality daycare infused with academic programming, as well as mental health, medical and dental assistance, nutritional guidance, and other related services. The programs also seek to prepare families to support their children once they enter the public school system by encouraging classroom involvement and at-home reading, which will sometimes consist of simply looking at pictures for parents who can’t read. The centers also send children home with paperback books, often in Spanish, and encourage parents to make routine visits to their local libraries.

Related: Their children’s first teachers: Latino parents targeted in early education efforts

But because Migrant Head Start families are required to move around the country for work that can be time-consuming and grueling, the school year for these programs can run for as little as two months in places where the growing seasons are relatively short and as long as six months in others. Children may arrive as early as 4:30 a.m., often asleep, and may leave in the early evening. Some centers are open seven days a week.

Mitchell says staffers need to understand what parents want and tailor their programs accordingly. Some centers host English as a second language classes and parenting symposiums inside their preschool classrooms. Others host talks on healthy eating, immigration law and how to care for children when they are home sick. Dental health vans make weekend stops to migrant housing sites. And during periods when work is scarce, as it has been recently with California’s extended drought, the centers provide information on where families can find food baskets and economic assistance.

“This helps to build trust,” said Jordan. “So, when we say: ‘Come to this meeting, or maybe you should try this,’ parents are more likely to listen to us.”

To further assist parents, each of the centers has a family service worker, who greets families in the early morning at the classroom, and inquires, often in a hushed voice to avoid waking sleeping children, about what they may need.

Yeny Gutierrez, the service worker at the Escalon site, which sits behind a neighborhood elementary school, says parents often seek advice about back pain, toothaches and headaches.

“A lot of our families don’t know what services exist for them,” she said. “So part of our job is to connect them to assistance out in the community.”

Earlier this year, one mother who picks apples for a living complained to the family service worker at a nearby Migrant Head Start site in Valle del Sol about a chronic stomachache. The family service worker there arranged for the woman, who was pregnant, to see a doctor. It turned out she had a gallstone.

Migrant Head Start administrators in Central California don’t provide daily transportation, but work to assist parents who need to carpool.

Gutierrez spent one recent morning trying to arrange transportation for several new students who live in an apartment complex five minutes away, but were not showing up because their mother’s used car had broken down.

Gutierrez stopped another mother she knew had a car and explained the problem.

“We wanted to know if you would be willing to help another family,” she asked her in Spanish. The mother, who lives in the same apartment complex, replied hesitantly: “I would like to meet the mom,” she said. Gutierrez agreed to arrange a meeting between the two women later that day.

Central California’s Migrant Head Start program costs close to $32 million, a sizable piece of the region’s total Head Start budget of $47.7 million.

Despite the money spent and the efforts to recruit, Migrant Head Start programs aren’t always full all-year-long, even if students are clocked as having attended. At the Escalon site, which recently re-opened mid-season, more than a dozen infant and preschool seats were vacant this fall. And at other sites, it is common to only have a few dozen filled slots at the end of a growing season after parents have left for other farming communities or headed back to Mexico.

Steven Barnett, the director of the national Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University who has conducted many studies on the long-term benefits of Head Start initiatives, wonders if other government organizations ought to offer some of the wrap-around services that federal regulations require centers like the Escalon one to provide. “It just might be more efficient for other social service and health organizations to do them,” he said.

But in Escalon, among weary parents at pick-up, these studies don’t enter the conversation.

Diego Garcia said he liked the program because it allowed him and his wife to work at local processing plants canning tomatoes and de-shelling almonds without having to worry about the health and well-being of their three-year-old son, Diego. “When he was home during the day, he was playing games and watching TV,” said Garcia. “And I didn’t want that for him. I am here because in Mexico, there aren’t opportunities for students unless you have a lot of money.”

The staff members at the center, he said, have urged him to aim high for his young children. Staring wistfully around the small cozy preschool room, decorated with English and Spanish-language paperback books, alphabet charts, and a stocked science center, he added softly that he would like to see them grow up to do “something professional.”

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