IHSD parent Nora Meléndez shares how Head Start has helped her family and how other parents can help too.

I will be completely honest. For a long time, I was not sure I even wanted to have children. I was focused on other things that were more important to me at the time. But as I got older, I started to consider that being a mom, was one more thing that I might want to accomplish in my lifetime. After an unplanned pregnancy that ended in miscarriage at age 30, I decided that I did want children after all. It took 7 more years before I would have my first child.

Before any of those events, I had seen the First 5 commercials on TV for many years. I was primed and conditioned through those commercials, as well as my own desire to give my children the best education possible, to search for enrichment programs when the time was right.

When Archy was born in 2015, then Trini in 2016, and finally Camelia (Lili) in 2017…needless to say I was overwhelmed. Being pregnant for three years in a row is not easy physically and emotionally. I stopped working briefly in 2016 but after my savings ran out, I needed to get back to work. That’s when I began to search for outside childcare options. My mom was great about offering to care for my first child while I continued to work. But then, baby number two and then number three came along, and suddenly – Grandma was not as willing. (That was understandable, of course. Three babies are a huge job for anyone, even an experienced mom.)

I got invaluable support that decreased my sense of isolation while going through a challenging second pregnancy.

With a tight budget and only working part-time, our options for pre-schools or childcare were very limited. I looked at one potential school in Mountain View and was sticker-punched, not shocked, but very much brought down to earth by the amount of money they charged. Although the program was excellent, I did not have the Silicon Valley salary it would require. Then, I learned about the IHSD Head Start program. Archy was one and a half at that point and I was in the middle of my second pregnancy. I learned that the program didn’t cost anything for low-income families, and their services were high quality and included resources with the entire family in mind.

In 2016, we started out with an hour and a half visits from a teacher that came to our home once a week. Although I was required to participate during the educational activities, I saw it as a respite from having to do it all myself. I had someone to help me with the mom thing. I got invaluable support that decreased my sense of isolation while going through a challenging second pregnancy. The home visits lasted about a year and a half, then suddenly Archy was three years old and eligible for the site-based program. Transitioning Archy from home to school was, however, a challenge. He experienced a lot of anxiety in the first month of school. But we pushed on and by the end of the school year, Archy was thriving. With the help of his teachers, he is today a happy boy who will be heading to Kindergarten next fall.

I have begun searching for a Kindergarten for Archy and a recent tour at a school in East Palo Alto, I observed a class where the teacher was giving a reading and writing lesson. One child started to look really overwhelmed and upset and began to cry. Very sweetly the teacher asked him why he was so upset. Through his tears, the boy responded that he didn’t understand and couldn’t recognize the letters. Even more gently, the teacher told him it would be okay since they could go over the work later until he completed the lesson. My heart broke for that child because I thought how unfair and unnecessary it was that any child should feel inadequate for lack of a pre-school program where he would have received that preparation well in advance. This incident further cemented in my mind the belief that all young students need access to a high-quality education, at an early age.

This year in March, Trini, my second son, also began school at the Laurel site on a part-time basis. Trini had a much easier time transitioning from home to school. Because he had watched his older brother go to school every day – he wanted to go too. Trini started full time at the East Palo Alto site in August. Despite initial concerns about the boys being in the same classroom, Archy is learning to help his younger brother and Trini is learning to accept help. At home, we reinforce the lessons from school as much as possible, one main lesson being that brothers shouldn’t fight and should help each other.

Lili will be three years old in early 2020. I am excited that my youngest will soon be attending the site-based program along with her brothers. Her current home visitor, Claudia Dotson, is wonderful. Claudia is well qualified and very dedicated to the families she visits. Claudia, as well as all the teachers at IHSD, understands the important work she is doing on behalf of young children.

I am now looking forward to having all three children in school in 2020! Head Start has provided my family with immense amounts of support, as well as an exponential boost for my children in their personal development. As a parent, I place tremendous value in the program and have become involved in volunteering as much as possible.

As much as the program has done for my family, early childhood education is facing a huge challenge; lack of parent participation. The majority of parents enroll our children in Head Start out of necessity. We need a safe and affordable place to leave our child while we work, and IHSD, while providing high-quality programs, gives us working parents that peace of mind. The organization is mainly funded by grants through the federal government, other grants, and donations. Because of this, spending is very tightly monitored, but budgeting is also a challenge.

When a child sees her mom or dad volunteering at school, it helps her understand that school is important and she will also feel more valued.

How can parents help IHSD fill in some of the funding challenges? Volunteering at school is one way! When parents volunteer, we can become more aware of where our time can be put to good use for the benefit of our children. Beyond working to provide for our children’s physical and emotional needs in life, parents must become active participants in school activities that put the value of a good education first. When a child sees her mom or dad volunteering at school, it helps her understand that school is important and she will also feel more valued.

We need to support our overstretched teachers. Even with three teachers to twenty kids (which is a great ratio), in-class help is priceless. Staying to help with morning activities like breakfast and cleanup, reading a book to the class, or cutting up shapes for hands-on activities can help relieve some of the pressure off the teachers, so teachers can give more in-depth attention to each child. Program managers are stretched thin too. Working more closely with your Parent Coordinator, PCC Representatives and PC Council will also provide an opportunity to shape the program to the needs of all families. When a parent feels a responsibility for their child’s education, and well-being, we look for ways to work with the school to better suit our needs.

We parents are the most important advocate for our children!

In addition, and at a wider scale, our local Ravenswood School District, is facing the same budget cuts, low attendance, funding challenges, and most recently school closures. And just as I have made an extra effort by volunteering today at Head Start, I have sought out other non-profit organizations in the area whose mission is to improve the quality of education available to low-income families in our local public schools.

In order to improve our schools and child outcomes that will give our children more opportunities at success, we must give all of our children the best head start by working directly with teachers and administrative staff today. Furthermore, we must also look to the future and become involved in the wider community so that our parental perspectives can be taken into account by the schools and district.

We parents are the most important advocate for our children! Given that teaching and administrative staff are very open to new ideas and suggestions, we parents should take advantage and actively look for ways to have our voices heard. When parents participate, everyone wins!

 

Additional East Palo Alto parent resources:

  • LENA, early language programs powered by “talk pedometer” technology.
    Classes now available at the East Palo Alto Public Library. 650-321-7712
  • Innovate Schools is non-profit organization who’s mission is to improve local schools and is active in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and other local Bay Areas cities. Contact Isadora Cardoso for more information at 541-745-9668.

 

Nora Meléndez has been a long-time resident of East Palo Alto. She attended several local elementary schools in Menlo Park, as well as Carlmont High School in Belmont. She went to UC Berkeley and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology before moving back to the Peninsula. Nora is interested in uplifting her community by staying informed and involved on issues of immigration and education.