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Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with The New York Times reporter, Jason DeParle.  The topic of our conversation was East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s experience with Head Start’s Designation Renewal System (DRS).   This week, all that I shared with Jason was boiled down to a single cite: John Menditto of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project warns that harsh penalties may dissuade programs from serving especially disadvantaged populations like migrants.  If you know me, you know I had lots more to say than just that!

The article in The New York Times provided an excellent review of the pros and cons of DRS.   And as a special #FlashbackFriday post to From Harvest to Head Start, I wanted to share excerpts from the text of a speech I made a few years ago at the National Head Start Association’s Leadership Institute recounting our experience with DRS.  Enjoy!


Our migrant and seasonal farmworker parents work from sun up to sun down.

Lake City, South Carolina is a city in name only. According to the 2000 census, Lake City had a population of 6,478. Certainly not the population of a bustling city.  There isn’t a lake nearby either. What surrounds Lake City is farm land. Lots and lots of farm land. So much farm land, in fact, that 60 years ago, Lake City was known as the “Bean Capital of the World.”

As the decades passed, the crops grown in and around Lake City changed, as did their means and methods of harvesting. That is the one constant for Head Start grantees serving farmworker families. The communities we serve will always be linked to the land and to decisions about what to plant and when to plant made by large agri-business companies and smaller family farmers who own the land.

By 2009, the crops bringing migrant farmworkers to lake city were peaches and tobacco. The farmworkers would begin to arrive with their children in June, taking up temporary residence in mobile home parks, often sharing trailers to make ends meet. While moms and dads would wake up before dawn to start preparing for their work in the tobacco field and peach orchards, a Head Start school bus driver with a team of bus monitors would navigate a school bus into the mobile home parks to collect their children aged zero to school age and bring them to our Head Start center. Those school bus routes would run five days a week throughout the summer and into the fall, when the farmworker families would depart in October back to Florida for the start of the citrus season.

Juan and little boy

Juan Rangel, a former ECMHSP student enrolled in college, is carrying a little boy from the Fields of Dream Head Start Center.

Like many large Head Start grantees, East Coast delivers services in accordance with two models: in some local communities we deliver these services directly; and in other local communities we deliver these services through a contract with another non-profit with the capacity to deliver high-quality services in a local community. In Lake City, in 2009, East Coast contracted with Wateree Community Actions, Inc., a fantastic regional Head Start grantee dedicated to providing high-quality and comprehensive Head Start services.

I often speak about the degree of difficulty of the mission we are trying to accomplish at East Coast and the degree of difficulty of the mission of our delegates like Wateree Community Actions, Inc. One area that contributes to this high degree of difficulty is the fact that the home language of parents whose children attend our Head Start program often is a language other than English. In South Bay, Florida, many farmworker families speak Creole; in Indiantown, Florida, many farmworker families speak indigenous languages. In the case of families attending the Lake City Head Start center – the home language of most families was Spanish.


While their parents work in the fields, ECMHSP provides these smiling children high-quality Head Start services.

For Wateree Community Actions, Inc., in 2009, the home language of farmworker families created a real dilemma. As I noted at the outset, the population of Lake City is around 6,500, of that total only 68 individuals identified themselves as being of Hispanic origin. How is a Head Start program offering seasonal employment as infant teachers going to find degreed teachers who also are fluent in Spanish?

Well, perhaps you are not surprised to learn that Wateree was not able to find degreed infant teachers who also were fluent in Spanish. What Wateree did have were experienced and degreed infant teachers, all of whom had taken introductory Spanish classes at the local community college.  And what Wateree did have were parent volunteers in the classroom who were fluent in Spanish.  And what Wateree did have was a deep commitment to learning and development of those children such that those children were in a safe and nurturing environment and not left back with babysitters who would be tasked with the responsibility of caring for multiple children in a crowded trailer.

As you no doubt have surmised, Wateree’s inability to comply with a single Head Start performance standard – a standard that provides when a majority of children in a classroom speak a language, at least one classroom person must speak that language – was the single deficiency that put East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in the first re-competition cohort in December 2011.  One center, among more than 50 centers. A single deficiency for a high-quality Head Start grantee.

And so began an 18-month odyssey into the deep end of the re-competition pool. Our journey began with our Board of Directors and our Policy Council having to make a number of important strategic decisions. In the for-profit world, they call these decisions “bet the company” decisions because a wrong choice could mean the end of the company.

One decision was the governing bodies decision not to be involved in a high-profile lawsuit that was filed by many Head Start grantees challenging the legality of the designation renewal system. Instead, the Board and Policy Council endorsed a different approach: we would look at re-competition as an opportunity, not as a threat; and we would write an application that would compel the office of Head Start to fund us on our terms.

Another important strategic decision was the decision to include all of our service areas in our application – even those service areas that involve the highest degree of difficulty. This, of course, is a basic flaw in the designation renewal system. When Head Start grantees are putting at risk all of its Head Start grant funds by operating a single center, there is a tremendous incentive to carve out those centers that are the hardest to operate – to carve out those centers with the greatest need. I am proud to say that the Board and Policy Council of East Coast never wavered in its commitment to operating centers that entail the greatest degree of difficulty – we never wavered in our commitment to serving families with the greatest needs.

The degree of difficulty of what we do turned out to be our lifeguard in the recompetition pool. The only competition came from another migrant Head Start grantee in Florida, who sought to take away all of our Florida centers.  For us, providing high quality Head Start services to migrant farmworker families in Florida is relatively easy. Florida is the home base for our families. They reside in local communities from November through May and East Coast is able to recruit and hire bilingual and degreed Head Start teachers without the same degree of difficulty as we do in upstream locations like Chandler Mountain, Alabama, Parksley, Virginia, or Lake City, South Carolina. But, the decision of another migrant Head Start grantee to compete with East Coast proved to be the single best development in the re-competition process because it motivated us to write an application of exceptional quality.

In addition, the competition we received had the effect of raising our profile within the Office of Head Start. Our regional program manager and Program specialist always knew about the phenomenal work we were accomplishing, but the director of the office of Head Start and other Senior leaders within OHS did not fully appreciate the Head Start mission we were fulfilling. Through the competition, OHS leadership learned in intimate detail, who we were. This reversal of fortune would not have been possible had it not been for the competition that was brought our way.

As you know, our journey into the deep-end of the re-competition pool was a success.  We retained much of our Head Start service area.  However, re-competition did not leave us un-scathed. Two of our delegate agencies applied to receive funding directly from the office of Head Start and, as a result, East Coast is no longer responsible for the quality of Head Start services to farmworker families in Georgia or New York. In addition, we have transitioned more centers from a delegate agency model to a direct service model so that we could more closely monitor compliance with all of the Head Start Program Performance Standards.

Photo 1-FSC reading a book

Our staff prepares children to be successful in school.

But for East Coast, on a day-to-day basis, little has changed as a result of the designation renewal system and re-competition. East Coast was a high-quality Head Start program prior to recompetition and we are a high-quality Head Start program after re-competition.  Prior to recompetition we served families living in rundown mobile home parks and crowded labor camps; and after re-competition, we serve families living in rundown mobile home parks and crowded labor camps.  Prior to re-competition, East Coast operated Head Start centers in areas that involve the highest degree of difficulty; and after recompetition, we do the same.

At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, our Board, Policy Council and all of our dedicated staff wouldn’t change our mission for anything. We certainly wouldn’t change it because of the Designation Renewal System and recompetition.

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