Health & Fitness

Stanislaus County’s Head Start receives big boost in $26 million federal funding

Stanislaus County Office of Education received renewal of their $26 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee Head Start programs for eight counties in the region.

In addition to Stanislaus, SCOE oversees Head Start in Merced, Madera, Santa Cruz, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, Contra Costa and parts of Monterey counties.

SCOE’s total budget for Head Start programs is $84 million, including federal, state and local funding. They oversee 224 classes. Last year, they provided services to nearly 14,000 community members and had a workforce of more than 1,100 people.

Still, there aren’t enough slots to meet the demand. Among eligible children, birth to age 5, only 24% of Stanislaus kids and 3% of kids in SCOE’s other seven counties participate in Head Start programs. According to SCOE, there are 869 children on the waiting list to enroll.

“Funding limits the number of available slots and larger capacity would be beneficial for the community,” said Tony Jordan, executive director of Child and Family Services at SCOE, including Head Start programs.

California’s Head Start programs are the largest in the country. In 2017, nearly 102,000 children participated, with a budget of $1 billion, about 10% of the total national budget. The state cost per child is about $9,800, consistent with the national rates.

Head Start programs are administered locally, but quality standards are regulated by federal guidelines. The programs have several service models including center-based, home-based or family child care settings.

What is Head Start?

The mission of Head Start is to cultivate school readiness in low-income children, ultimately to help them have higher achievements in school and life.

Head Start programs provide services to children in three primary areas:

  • learning
  • health
  • family well-being

Learning includes planned instruction and play activities to promote language development, literacy and understanding concepts. Promoting social-emotional development is also part of the curriculum.

Parents are integral participants in Head Start, and the programs work to strengthen parent-child relationships. Families also get help identifying resources for their specific needs, such as housing, parent education services and financial assistance programs.

To address health in school readiness, children are required to have comprehensive assessments of physical, mental and oral health, as well as developmental screenings. Nationwide, about 90% of Head Start kids have insurance through Medicaid (MediCal in California), Child Health Insurance Program or other public insurance.

Also part of good health, the children receive nutritious meals during the school day, following USDA requirements. Most Head Start programs offer nutrition education for parents and caregivers.

“We are proud to have at least a 90% immunization rate (in Head Start),” said Marissa Duran, Head Start program manager at SCOE. The 2018 annual report shows that at least 90% of the kids also had dental exams and medical check-ups. The vaccination rate is similar to other Stanislaus County kids, but the rates of medical and dental care are higher.

Programs under Head Start umbrella

Head Start preschool is for children ages 3 and 4. Early Head Start provides services for infants and toddlers until age 3. They also have programs for low-income pregnant women, which include education about a healthy pregnancy, parenting skills and child development.

Other programs under the Head Start umbrella include American Indian and Alaska Native programs, Migrant and Seasonal Head Start and Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships.

Migrant programs are for agricultural workers who have changed addresses in the previous two years and seasonal programs are for agricultural workers without recent address changes.

“The programs are tailored to the needs of our agricultural families,” said Pardeep Kaur, when discussing the Migrant Head Start program at the Walter Thompson Child Development Center. Kaur is director of the center, which accepts infants starting at age six weeks.

Kaur said that the Migrant and Seasonal programs adjust their hours during harvest times, including opening at 5 a.m. before parents go to the fields.

The center is located in Ceres as part of a migrant housing community operated under the Stanislaus Housing Authority. To live in the neighborhood, at least 51% of a family’s income has to come from agricultural work.

Head Start Workforce Developments

“We found that one in four of our teachers were Head Start participants, as parents or young children,” Jordan of SCOE said.

Jordan said when they realized so many of their teachers were former Head Start participants, SCOE redeveloped their parent-to-teacher program. They had a related, smaller program in the past. With the current program, parents are able to pursue certification as an associate teacher or child development specialist, and they complete their volunteer hours at a Head Start program.

“All my family in Mexico are teachers and I like to identify with them “ said Cynthia Reynoso, who is in the parent-to-teacher program. She said she is eager to become a Head Start teacher because she loves her son’s school and working with children.

In addition to the parent-to-teacher program, SCOE also helps train child development students at Modesto Junior College. They have a Head Start program located on MJC’s West Campus, through a partnership with Salida Union School District.

On the MJC Head Start playground, Danielle Garcia donned a bright yellow plastic construction hat to play pretend with toddlers in the garden.

“I would love to open my own day care program one day,” said Garcia. She completed the child development program at MJC last semester and is finishing her internship before transferring to Stanislaus State.

Many of the children at the MJC program have parents who are students at MJC, as well as other local schools. The Head Start staff said it’s rewarding to see the parents succeed in their own education, while their kids are learning in Head Start.

Impact of Head Start

One in five children in Stanislaus County lives in poverty.

In local Head Start programs, about 90% of the children are from families who live at or below poverty level, receive public assistance or are foster children, as required by funding guidelines. Some infants and children with disabilities, regardless of income, may also enroll.

Children in poverty often start kindergarten behind their more affluent peers for multiple reasons, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Disadvantaged preschoolers hear fewer words, are more likely to have poorer health and nutrition and have experienced more adverse events than higher-income kids. The children usually live in poor neighborhoods, which have fewer enriching resources such as safe parks, libraries and full-service grocery stores.

A 2016 review of research about children who attended Head Start documented positive impacts upon education and health outcomes. Children who attended high-quality programs were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and get a post-secondary degree, license or certification.

Compared to siblings who didn’t attend, Head Start grads are also less likely to be involved in the justice system.

However, not all research has confirmed long-term benefits of Head Start.

Head Start Impact Study showed clear gains for attendees during preschool, but there were no significant differences in school performance by third grade compared to children who stayed home or attended other preschool programs.

“What we would say to the naysayers is that we’re hitting the mark and sending kids off who are (kindergarten) ready,” said Jordan. He said that 90% of Stanislaus County kids tested as ready in developmental assessments performed in their last year of Head Start.

“When we do it right, we are impacting communities with how we educate children, support parents and develop professionals,” said Jordan.

For more information about SCOE Head Start programs, visit:

This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.