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Although I’m in the latter half of my fourth decade of life, there are still many things I am learning about.  I am slowly gaining awareness of the actual ways government affects my life and the communities around me.  One meme I have encountered often is that when the US Federal Government funds something it comes with onerous strings attached and diminishes the ability of the locality receiving the funds to fully control how they are used.  

I am certain that this is the case in many areas of federal funding.  In fact, it is only logical that a federal program comes with strings attached.  However, my experience as the parent of a child in Head Start this past school year turns this meme on its head.

I was excited that my daughter would be eligible for preschool via Head Start.  She missed the cut off for Kindergarten by about two months, and had watched her twin brothers attend first preschool and then Kindergarten while she stayed home and supposed they must be having great fun.  Her brothers had attended preschool through the local school district because they were both somewhat speech delayed (not uncommon in twins.)  I didn’t have any idea of what to expect from Head Start – I had only read about the program and seen printed information about how to apply for it.  I had no friends or relatives who had ever had a child in the Head Start program.

A couple weeks into the school year, there was a flyer about a “parents’ meeting” – wanting to support my daughter in her preschool, I attended.  The meeting was a mish-mash of Spanish and English.  At least 90% of the parents spoke Spanish as their primary language, the Head Start teacher spoke only English – I am bilingual, so I followed no matter the language being used.  I discovered that it wasn’t just a meeting where parents get to be informed about the classroom, but rather one where we were to democratically organize ourselves, elect officers and representatives.  I wanted to be supportive, so when the role of “president of parents’ group” was described as simply leading the meetings, I decided that was something I could add to my busy schedule since I would plan to go whether or not I was an officer.  I don’t mind standing in front and talking.  

By the second or third parent meeting I realized that there was even more to this parents' group than just an organization to support the classroom or to air our grievances – there were monies set aside for the parents to democratically choose how they would be spent.  We volunteered ideas for a field trip, the teacher researched the options, and then we voted.  Together we chose a fair method to decide which parents would be invited to come on the big field trip as chaperones, with their entrance fees paid by the field trip monies.  At these meetings the teacher explained the curriculum goals and asked if there was anything more parents wanted the children to be learning about.  

I think sometimes we are so accustomed to being in a society where the decisions about the details are not left up to us that it is almost shocking to be asked these types of questions.  Our minds draw a blank because solicitation of our personally ideas by anyone with authority is so foreign.  What should my child learn about?  So often, there was an awkward silence after that question was posed in the monthly parents’ meeting.  Well…isn’t that the teacher’s job to determine?  No, really, the teacher is asking the parents.  What an amazing opportunity!  A couple hands would raise, a few ideas would come out.  

The school year has almost drawn to a close.  I don’t remember all of the things that parents mentioned that they wanted to see that were then implemented in the classroom.  I do remember a couple – a parent asked that the children have some sort of musical presentation.  I actually then volunteered to provide it, because I have a musical background and a small collection of musical instruments that I can share with young children.  And a few weeks ago when I found out that the children would be learning about spring and caterpillars and butterflies I asked if the classroom could obtain caterpillars so the kids could see them change into butterflies and then volunteered my family’s “butterfly house” for the project (I had done this with the kids a couple years earlier.)  This morning my daughter showed me the cup with five caterpillars in it.  

These are my experiences with the parents' group part of Head Start.  I am aware that we also elected a representative to the local Head Start Policy Committee, and that the representative is able to vote on issues that affect Head Start, and that we, the parents of Head Start students, can contact our representative (who is one of our parents) with any issues we want brought up with the Policy Committee.  Parents are also welcome to attend the monthly Policy Committee meeting.  

My twin boys are in first grade in the local public school district.  Although at the beginning of the school year I received curriculum information from their first grade teachers, neither one asked me as a parent if there was anything else that I would like to have included in the curriculum.  The local public school district is primarily funded with local taxes rather than federal funds (although my boys to go to schools that receive Title I funding.)

I have found this experience with Head Start to be remarkable.  As I understand it, Head Start is a fully federal funded program.  However, the amount of local, parental influence over this preschool is considerable, and outstrips the parental involvement solicited by the local school district.  As a parent of a Head Start child, I get the impression that I have more influence than I would have had an any other preschool available in my area, whether it was a government or private institution.  

Hats off to an excellent program!  I have many complaints about President Obama’s recent budget proposal, but if his universal pre-K program would be modeled after the current Head Start program, I believe preschoolers and their parents across the nation would be given a wonderful opportunity.

Originally posted to phoenixvoice on Fri Apr 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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