Monday, April 27, 2015

My Life As An Educator ~ Part I ~ Project Head Start

*Fifty years ago this year, I first embarked on my journey to become an educator.  I'm looking back on some of the memories I made along the way. 

Leadville, Colorado

A clipping rom the Leadville Herald Democrat 
Summer 1965
I am the "Trained Aide" in the photo
 1965, the year I turned twenty, I was just beginning the upper level courses that would lead to a degree in elementary education at what was then Colorado State College. (Now University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado)  That summer, between my sophomore and junior year, I had the very unique opportunity of working as a "trained aide"  for Project Head Start in Leadville, Colorado.  A young, idealistic preservice teacher I jumped at the opportunity to work in this program as a summer job.

I saw the philosophy behind Head Start as one that aligned with my own belief system about the value of education and the role it played in economic opportunity.  While I had never articulated my beliefs at the time in this manner, a believer in social justice, I firmly believed that it was only through education that those living in poverty would be able overcome the social and economic inequities that were found in our country at during the early sixties.

Head Start Students
Summer 1965
Leadville, Colorado
Some of you may not know much about Head Start.  1965, the U. S. Office of Economic Opportunity began the eight-week summer program that would launch Project Head Start.  I was one of many tutors, aides, and teachers that were hired that summer to serve over 560, 000 children throughout the country in this newly created program.

 As a refresher, I want to briefly outline the reasons why Head Start was created.  It grew out of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, and I think it is interesting to note that it was created by the Office of Economic Opportunity.  The basic premise for this program was established on the belief that education was the solution to breaking the "cycle of poverty."    It was a time when the civil-rights movement was greatly influencing education.  It was thought that "government was obligated to help disadvantaged groups in order to compensate for inequality in social and economic conditions."  Head Start was to be a comprehensible program for preschool children that would meet their "emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs."

I wish I had kept a journal of those days because now, nearly 50 years later, my mind is a bit fuzzy about it all.  I do remember that in my youth I was idealistic about education and social reform.  I had great dreams about the kind of educator I would become.   As a young woman coming of age during the 60's,  I embraced the Civil Rights Movement and the "new" ideas about education, but I also respected and looked up to my mentors for their wisdom, leadership, and advice.  

My mentor for the summer of 1965 had also been my younger sister's kindergarten teacher the year or two before.  As a family, we already embraced Idelia B. Riggs as a gifted teacher.  As I reflect back on her now, I still consider her as the consummate educator, and as one the best with whom I have had the privilege to know throughout my entire lifetime.  She must have been in her sixties when I worked with her.  She had taught everything from kindergarten to college.  She had been the principal of a one-room schoolhouse at one point in her career.

She knew what children needed to grow and to prosper educationally, emotionally and socially.  She embraced the ideals behind Project Head Start and imparted them to me along with all of the reasons why she believed the program could be successful.  She said that the children of poverty in the area where we lived were beginning school without the skills that other children brought to school.  Sometimes, they didn't even know how to use indoor plumbing.  Yes, in 1965, in our program in Leadville, Colorado, some of the children did not have indoor plumbing.  We had to teach them how to use the bathroom facilities.  Some did not receive proper nutrition at home and many were undernourished.  They lagged behind their peers in knowing how to grasp a pencil or how to turn the pages of a book. Many did not know the alphabet.   They did not know how to write their names.  Many did not know colors or shapes.  They did not have group or personal social skills.  All of these needs would be met, as best they could be, by our summer program.  The program was comprehensive.  School readiness was achieved by giving the children equal portions of playtime, story time, art activities, and basic academic preparation such as learning how to recognize and form letters through reading and writing.

I have a vivid memory of the lunches that these children received.  The government's philosophy was that this program should have "maximum feasible participation" for success.  Therefore, those who would benefit from the program, the low income population, should help plan and run their own programs.  Many of the women who planned and cooked the meals were the mothers of the children.  Everyday, they prepared wonderful meals.  I loved the Spanish rice we had nearly everyday.  Believe me,  in those days the meals fed these children were good.  They are nothing like the terrible meals that are put together in an off-site place and served to low-income kids these days.  In the 60's, at the Leadville Head Start, meals included not only wonderful rice, they also included great main dishes like fried chicken, and vegetables. The best part might have been fresh home baked dinner rolls or cinnamon rolls we were served daily!  Oh the agony of waiting for lunch while smelling those fresh rolls bake. 

Our lead teacher, Mrs. Riggs was a very practical woman who put up with no nonsense from anyone.  Her character was stellar.  She saw her role as an educator as one as a public servant.  She was not interested in feathering her own nest or building her career.  She was there for the children she taught and for the families she served.  In my mind's eye, I see her now.  She is wearing the apron with plenty of pockets so she would have "a place for those tissues to wipe a child's nose or tears," or as a place to keep stray crayons, pencils or rubber bands that she might need while she was teaching.  She believed in expecting the best behavior and performance from all kids.  Patient, kind and loving, she was also demanding when it came to giving something your best efforts.  We ALL learned from her.   As I said, I could never have had a better mentor.  Mrs. Riggs, and the ideals of Head Start, greatly influenced my philosophy of my own role as an educator.

I am including a treasured letter that Mrs. Riggs wrote to me in August, 1965.  It reads:

 Dear Sally,
May I again express my appreciation for your top quality contribution to our Head Start program and staff.  You are a genuine and capable and very personable young woman, Sally, - a credit to your fine family and the best of our American Youth.  And besides, you're just plain sweet. 

Fondly yours,
Idelia B. Riggs

Hello to all your family, too.


I will always be grateful for the time I had working by Mrs. Riggs side.  I also am grateful for the time I had working with  groundbreaking Project Head Start during the first year of its inception.  Even though I spent the majority of my career as an educator at the secondary level, children of preschool age continue to have a soft place in my heart when it comes to education.  I am also grateful that I held fast to those idealistic views I held for education during the years when I first began on my journey as an educator.

 I often wish I could discuss today's state of education with Mrs. Riggs.  I know she would have some very strong ideas on what must happen if we are to achieve the lofty ideals that we had in the 60's.  

*  I originally wrote parts this post in 2009.  Parts of it were publish in the Fall 2010 issue of  "The Colorado Communicator," a newsletter for the Colorado Council International Reading Associate.  Serving as co-editor for this newsletter was one of my "retirement jobs."