08/31/2011 11:15 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2011

Migrant Ed/Head Start Provides Awareness of the Real World to Migrant Kids

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a conference for Migrant Ed/Head Start in Tucson, Arizona.

Before I left home I read an article about migrant education in the local paper. The article sited Joe Klein's feature in TIME magazine, "Time to Ax Public Programs That Don't Yield Results." He states "there is indisputable evidence about the program's effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.

How wrong he is! I grew up as a farm worker and was 12 when head start originated. I was too old to enjoy the benefits of being in head start and I paid the price over the years. I was always behind and it took me several years to feel on equal terms with my classmates, and they were poor, not severe like my family, but by any other standards. I felt inferior in the classroom and socially. As farm worker children, we rarely got exposed to what I call the "real world." We grew up picking crops all year long, weekends, holidays and summer vacations. We didn't have the time or money to go on outings or vacation. Most of the time, we were too tired. We never went to big cities, museums, libraries, department stores or anywhere unless it was for work. We never entered the "real world" and, socially, we were very naïve and out of touch. It wasn't until I went to high school and college that I realized how closed off we were from what most people accepted as routine.

Migrant Ed/Head Start's mission statement reads, "Head Start... promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services."

Joe Klein and others with similar thinking miss that point. It isn't only about school work. It is giving kids, who otherwise would never see anything but a classroom and their neighborhood, an opportunity to be exposed to the world outside their family. Farm worker families rarely interact with anyone outside the family, and other than teachers and farmers, no white people, therefore, they don't know how to communicate with strangers and thus they are considered backward and shy, or worse yet, dumb.

While in Tucson I made it a point to arrive early and observe and engage with some of the Migrant Ed teachers and trainers. What I encountered only reinforced my opinion of Migrant Ed/Head Start programs. It is not the program but the people who made a difference. Without exception, every person I met was enthusiastic and committed to their mission of giving the parents and children an education, both in the classroom and outside of class. In addition, they serve as role models and mentors because many of them grew up in similar environments.

The children and parents they connect with, on a daily basis, see that there is more to life then the fields. At the Tucson conference I heard story after story of dedicated staff that went beyond the call of duty, giving up their free time to take kids on a retreat, going to a home in crisis, but most of all, giving hope to a population society normally writes off.

There is much more to this program then money. But if money is an issue, consider what Cleo Rodriguez, Jr., Executive Director National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, states "Study after study has demonstrated that for every dollar spent on Head Start, society earns back at least $7 through increased earnings, employment, and family stability; and decreased welfare dependency, crime costs, grade repetition, and special education."

Unfortunately, too many times we look at the bottom line financially, and not the long term goals of a program, or the benefits to society. Mr. Rodriquez sums it very well with his comment, "Head Start results extend beyond the classroom and contribute to overall preparedness for life."

In most cases, migrant education kids see only one way of life, as farm workers. Migrant Education/Head Start programs allows the children, and the parents, an opportunity to open up their minds to what they are capable of. It is amazing how much their lives can be changed by early interaction and education.