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(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., March 29, 2007) — By 2011, more than 50 percent of the teachers in the nation’s Head Start programs for low-income families will be expected to have a bachelorís degree. For many of the teachers, some of whom were once parents in the program, getting that college degree is a daunting task.
Cal State Northridge’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences has launched an innovative program designed to bring a college degree within reach for hundreds of Head Start teachers in the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County.
With the support of a $750,000 five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, the department sends faculty into the communities where the Head Start teachers work to mentor, support and prepare the teachers for getting their bachelorís degrees. Once ready to attend CSUN, the department offers the teachers scholarships to cover their tuition and has juggled its course offerings to provide more classes in the evenings and on Saturdays to accommodate the teachers’ already demanding schedules.
"The one thing I’ve learned since starting this program is that many of these teachers are really smart. It’s just that the doors haven’t been opened for them," said part-time CSUN lecturer Barbara Rigney-Hill, who oversees the program in Ventura County. "Well, we’re opening those doors."
Department chair Alyce Akers explained that Family and Consumer Science’s program is aimed at two types of Head Start teachers; those who work in urban settings such as the San Fernando Valley and parts of Ventura County, and those who work with the children of migrant workers in the more rural sections of Ventura County. There are currently more than 500 Head Start teachers taking part in the program.
"Regardless of where these teachers work, they are going to need to get a bachelor’s degree if they want to continue their jobs," Akers said. "Our job is to make sure that we recognize their needs and give them the support and education to get that degree."
Head Start is a national program that provides comprehensive developmental services for low-income, preschool-aged children and social services for their families. The program requires that parents have a say in how their specific Head Start program operates and as a result, many parents end up as aides, teachers or even supervisors of a program their children were once in.
"To achieve that is pretty remarkable," Hill said. "But adding on the degree requirement is pretty daunting, even for these women."
As part of the CSUN effort, Hill and her counterpart serving the San Fernando Valley, part-time lecturer Anne Gill, hold weekly seminars on such topics as early childhood education, improving child literacy, healthy life styles, nutrition, cultural diversity and how to prepare for college.
Many of the teachers are already taking community college courses because of federal rules requiring that 50 percent of all Head Start teachers have an associate’s degree or better. Hill and Gill supplement that education and offer suggestions and guidance on how to transfer to a four-year institution to get a bachelorís degree. They also serve as mentors, visiting the teachers in their classroom and offering advice on day-to-day activities with the children.
"I was a preschool teacher myself," said Hill, who used to head the Department of Family and Consumer Science’s Laboratory School, which serves preschool and kindergarten children and is a learning environment for CSUN students interested in working with children. "Each class is unique, but the situations are particularly unique for the migrant teachers."
She pointed out that most Head Start programs mirror the traditional school schedule, beginning in late August and continuing through June. However, the schools serving the migrant community follow the crop seasons, with classes starting in January and continuing through October.
Children in the migrant program are usually dropped off at 5:30 a.m. In addition to providing the children with educational enrichment, the teachers in these settings also must provide their charges with breakfast, lunch and snacks, while at the same time responding to social service needs that are unique to migrant families.
"It’s really exciting to work with these women," Hill said. "Many of the women worked in the fields for a long time before their involvement as Head Start parents led them into becoming teachers. This is a great opportunity for them to continue to move forward and get their bachelor’s."
She said many of the women in the program are the first in their families to get a college education, starting with their associate’s degrees.
"They are trying very hard," she said. "They are working long days and have families, and yet they somehow find the time to take one or two classes during the semester. It’s amazing what they are accomplishing. All we’re doing is trying to help them attain their dreams."
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