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REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Why the Need for Head Start? The Kids Have Farther to Go

September 09, 1990|MARIA NEWMAN

The children in Dr. Eloy Rodriguez's summer science program are back in school now, along with everyone else.

This summer, while other youngsters were on vacation with their parents, or playing barefoot in their back yards, 60 of Rodriguez's students, dressed in tiny white lab coats, looked at the underside of sea anemones and other creatures as teachers explained in English and in Spanish how animals thrive in the ocean.

The children were all Latinos, most of them the sons and daughters of maintenance workers for the university, or the farm laborers who live in a mobile home park in Irvine. The program was the idea of Rodriguez, a native of south Texas whose high school teacher once told him he should not bother with college, but instead enroll in a vocational school. If no one gave the kids a boost, he said, they would start school already a step behind everyone else.

In homes where the mother and father are both college graduates, and the grandparents perhaps also were lucky enough to have finished high school or even attended college, no one questions the notion of a child getting as much education as possible.

But this is not the way it is for everyone. And that is why there are programs like Rodriguez's, and the federally funded Head Start program that thousands of low-income children all over the country are attending. In the Santa Ana Unified School District, several west-side schools just introduced the Head Start program.

The summer before I started first grade, our school district launched an experimental program that later became known as Head Start. I was one of the students.

A yellow school bus went up and down my street in our neighborhood in south Texas, picking up all the kids who were the sons and daughters of laborers and blue-collar workers. All of us spoke Spanish at home.

For several hours a day during those few weeks in summer, I was introduced to public education. There were colorful plastic boxes with wooden toys and brightly illustrated books.

To tell the truth, I don't remember much else about that summer, other than that I could count to 100 when I started, something that seemed to impress the teachers. And also that I had my right arm in a sling the whole time, because I had caught my arm in the rollers of a wringer washer. Though I could barely write the alphabet, I remember struggling for the next few weeks with the fat pencil they always give little kids.

A few years later, my older sister was a student teacher with the Head Start program in the same school, the year my younger brother was a student. They both went on to earn college degrees; my sister is now a teacher.

While I didn't notice at the time what a difference it was making in my life, tests show that programs such as Head Start markedly improve students' academic performance later on.

Head Start is in its 26th year now. But even though this proven program has been introduced in so many school districts nationwide, dropout rates for minority students, and especially for Latino students, have remained high. Experts are constantly trying to figure out the mystery of why some kids do better than others, and why some quit trying.

Rodriguez thinks he knows part of the answer. His program was designed so that bilingual teachers work with small groups of children to learn about plant and sea life and insects, about how they function, their place in nature.

More important, his program attempts to make the children believe in themselves, by encouraging a pride in their cultural background, and to see themselves as equals of everyone else.

One teacher, Ricardo Del Mar, said many of the students in the program would later be considered "at-risk" students, those who are likely to drop out of school.

"Here, we don't have a stupid group, nor do we have a right and wrong answer for a lot of questions," he said. "Just by making them believe that they can do it, that they have a right to knowledge and that they have potential, we really have made a change.

"I don't know how much of a difference that will make in the long run, but we have tried to show them that we love them, that we care about them, that they can contribute something to this world," he said.

Rodriguez also recognizes the importance of the parent's involvement to their child's chances of success in school. Parents of his students were invited to come along on field trips.

One day, at his UCI office, Rodriguez showed me a picture taken when he was 14, depicting his cousins surrounding their grandfather.

Of those cousins, Rodriguez said proudly, five have Ph.D.s. And most of the others have at least an undergraduate degree.

He said it with the same kind of pride that I saw in my mother's face when my oldest sister graduated from high school. My mother, a strong woman, never cried. But that day she could not help herself, because my sister was the first one in her family who had ever made it that far.

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