This month, I’m happy to have a conversation with Fran Forman, executive director of the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County, which administers our county’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

Each year, Head Start serves more than 1,100 children and their families in 24 Head Start Centers, located on elementary school campuses and within low-income housing complexes. Head Start coordinates with public preschools, school districts, community providers, nonprofit organizations and the Child Care Planning Council to maximize the reach of school readiness and parent support services throughout the county.

Fran also serves as a commissioner for First 5 Santa Barbara County.

Ben Romo: But enough about your good work. Let’s talk about you. Where is this amazing kindergarten photo from? I love the sly smile.

Fran Forman as a kindergarten student in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Fran Forman as a kindergarten student in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Forman family photo)

Fran Forman: I attended kindergarten in Brooklyn, N.Y. I lived in a housing project.

On the first day of kindergarten, all the children were outside of the school, clinging to their mothers, crying. They were waiting for the teacher to come outside to walk them in.  I was not crying or clinging but excited for the whole affair to begin.

Mrs. Goodstein walked outside and said to the group, “Who is going to come in with me?” According to my mother, I was the first to happily march to her and said as I turned back, “Bye, Ma.”

My family retells it to show my character, sense of adventure and love of the unknown. I think it hurt my mom’s feelings a little, but she was also proud of her child adventurer.

BR: Never looking back! Seeing kids marching in fearlessly is probably pretty exciting for your Head Start educators. At the same time, I know your goal isn’t to leave parents outside the door.

FF: We believe that parents are a child’s first teacher. Head Start staff create a welcoming environment and engage parents in the program by building positive relationships.

Parents voluntarily participate in monthly parent meetings, parent workshops and conferences as they grow together with their children and strive for their own goals for a better life.

Of our 1,500 volunteers we have each year, 90 percent are Head Start/Early Head Start parents. We’re working to ensure parents feel confident as a key player on their child’s educational team.

BR: What obstacles do you face in doing this?

FF: We do work hard to convince parents of their critical role in their child’s success. Six out of every 10 children we serve come from households where English is not the primary home language, with most speaking Spanish or Mixtec.

I spent 10 years as an educator in Mexico; both my children were born there. I experienced firsthand how there was a separate division of labor between parents and teachers. It was considered disrespectful for parents to “get involved” in their child’s education — like they were undermining an expert.

This is the opposite in the United States. Head Start wants to empower parents to believe that they are the most important educator of their child. Culturally, this is a radical idea.

BR: Head Start doesn’t shy away from radical and innovative ideas. I love how your work is integrated onto existing school campuses or developed in partnership with housing complexes. How is this strategy working?

FF: The best way to provide this early care and education is to be as close to where people live as possible. Many affordable housing complexes build child-care facilities as part of receiving benefits from tax credits. This, for the most part, has worked very well.

The challenging part is that children still need to qualify for Head Start even if their families live in an affordable housing unit. We are able to prioritize children from the housing complexes for Head Start services, but we are not able to bend the rules so they automatically qualify.

We need to be in sync and work in tandem with schools so the benefits that children receive from attending Head Start are not lost during the school years. This is a new and developing relationship. In the past, schools and Head Start worked very separately. First 5 helped to bridge this gap over the past few years.

BR: Tell me about other challenges facing Head Start.

FF: Perhaps the greatest and most immediate challenge is having sufficient funding to be able to pay teachers on par with their public school counterparts. Now that Head Start teachers have attained or are attaining their degrees, we need to be able to pay them at the same level as public school teachers. The base funding is not there to do this. We need to advocate nationally for this.

BR: What do people find surprising about your work?

FF: People are usually surprised by the high-quality level of the services provided and the beauty of the centers. We stand head to head in quality with our colleagues operating preschools for children from families of wealth.

Additionally, most people aren’t aware of the wrap-around nature of the Head Start program. We work to ensure that children are assessed for issues that might affect readiness for school, and work to connect them with resources to address any concerns. This assessment process involves the family and the child, and includes health, mental health, nutritional, family needs, educational levels of the family, language needs and special needs.

In actuality, the entire family is enrolled, not just the child. I am proud of that and believe this is how it should be. It is truly a comprehensive program.

BR: About 25 percent of your budget comes from community contributions. This includes in-kind donations of space to operate Head Start programs, expertise by professionals, donated health services, monetary donations and private grants.

You’re a critical piece in a larger network of early care and education and parental support. What benefits are you seeing as a result of our community’s investment in young children and their families?

FF: Every day, I hear about a success story. Many community leaders have shared with me that their families’ lives have been transformed by Head Start.

For example, we opened a new center in Lompoc several years ago. At the grand opening, there was a senior city staff member. I thanked her for coming and supporting Head Start and CAC, thinking she came as part of her obligation as a senior level staff member with the city.

She shared with me that her own family was transformed by Head Start when she was growing up in Chicago. She was a little girl in the program, and her mom ended up attending college and becoming a teacher.

This type of thing happens to me wherever I go. On the train down to San Diego recently, the conductor told me that he attended Head Start. An elected official from Goleta shared with me that he also attended Head Start. The list goes on and on; the influence is profound and deep on the lives of the people in the program for the past 50 years.

We don’t have to wait 50 years to see the results, though. UC Santa Barbara is conducting a long-term study on children in Head Start and following when they move into school. It’s too soon to comment on the outcome of that study, but preliminary findings imply that children having the Head Start experience enter kindergarten ready to learn and are ahead of their peers without pre-school experience. We are so very excited about this. 

Literally 32 million Americans have attended Head Start. If you’re one of them, click here to share your story.

I’m proud to be a part of our small, supportive community of people who are working together for the benefit of children and families in Santa Barbara County. It’s easy to work together when we have the same goals.

Click here for more information about First 5 Santa Barbara County.

— Ben Romo is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.