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Giving Kids a ‘Head Start’ in the Mission

By Sonner Kehrt

Santiago Ruiz, CEO of the Mission Neighborhood Centers, has launched a campaign to raise $14 million over three years for early-childhood education.

With families in crisis, Mission Neighborhood Centers strives to dramatically expand access to early childhood education.

It’s a chilly, drizzly day in the Mission, though you would hardly know it from inside the cheery classroom at 362 Capp Street, where the walls are lined with letters and numbers. One of Mission Neighborhood Centers’ afternoon Head Start classes files into the bright, airy space, where a tiny boy in a bluecoat is helping set yellow plates around a table. His classmates doff their hats and jackets, line up to wash their hands, and take their seats in front of the plates, where they help themselves to lunch: pizza rolls, peas and applesauce. The applesauce is a hit —the peas, not so much.

The Mission has more children than most other San Francisco neighborhoods, and demand for full-time, quality, licensed child care is high. Options are limited, space is at a premium, and working-class families struggle to find care that works with their schedules. Mission Neighborhood Centers, a long-time community organization and one of only three Head Start grantees in the city, wants to change that. Meeting the demand is a driving force behind the group’s new capital campaign, which aims to raise $14 million over the next three years. The bulk of the funds will go toward expanding access to early-childhood education for more of the Mission’s children.

“A child between zero and 5 is in the most import-ant stage of their brain development,” says SantiagoSamRuiz, the centers’ CEO. “A child who has access to quality early care and education that comes from a poor family has a greater chance of graduating from high school, entering college, and graduating from college than those children who, for whatever reason, are not afforded that opportunity.”

Research has shown that investing in quality early-childhood education can reap a multitude of short- and long-term benefits, from better elementary school performance to lower arrest rates down the line. Without intervention, kids entering kindergarten from low-income backgrounds can lag nearly 20 months behind their higher-income peers. Gavin Newsom highlighted the issue in his gubernatorial campaign; his recent budget calls for $1.8 billion in funding for early-education initiatives across the state, a fact Mission Neighborhood Centers hopes to capitalize on in its fundraising efforts. Ultimately, it plans to open four new state-of-the-art early childhood education sites, with spaces for 218 kids.

Ruiz, who’s been at the helm of the organization for nearly 40 years, says that many of those spots will be for very young children, between the ages of zero and 3. Eighty-five percent of San Francisco’s babies and toddlers don’t have licensed child care available for them. Mission Neighborhood Centers’ Early Head Start program for this age group is currently almost at capacity, with 58 kids. There are 156 more on the wait list. The expanded programming will allow the organization to serve more of those children.

“It’s the sweet spot,” says Ruiz. “We have a longer timeframe to work with the child and with the parent.”

That mentality —early-childhood education isn’t only about the kids— is at the heart of Mission Neighborhood Centers’ approach. The organization takes a comprehensive view of community support, providing assistance with everything from prenatal care to job training to programs for seniors; the staff calls it “cradle-to-rocking-chair services.” Doing preschool right, Ruiz argues, means taking into account how it affects entire families. Adds Lila Carrillo, Mission Neighborhood Centers’ vice president of operations, “It’s not just opening new sites. It’s responding to what the community has said the need is.”

The families that the organization works with tend to be largely low-income, immigrant, often single-parent households. Many parents work full time or attend school, sometimes far from the Mission. Days are long, schedules are tough to juggle, and public transportation isn’t always reliable. Designing child care and education programs that ease — rather than add to — stress is paramount; done right, these initiatives can make it easier for families to continue living in the Mission.

To counteract some of the challenges, the organization is partnering with affordable-housing developers. Two of its new sites will be located in 100 percent affordable housing complexes — essentially providing child care close to those who will use it. Mission Neighborhood Centers will purchase the property for two of the four new sites, helping to guarantee their longevity. All of the sites are close to bus lines and BART, and are designed to make sure families have easy access to other services.

Those services include the organization’s Family Resource Centers, which provide assistance to families, helping parents confront challenges that might limit their ability to give the same support at home that kids get in preschool. The centers offer things like financial literacy classes, GED prep and parenting workshops; parental support is a corner-stone of the organization’s approach.

“Many of our part-time families have issues with pick-up and drop-off,” says Nieves. “They’re corral-ling relatives and neighbors to help.”

For Lourdes Cruz, whose 4-year-old son is in his first year at Head Start, having full-time care has been a blessing. In particular, knowing that he’s getting a high-quality education has helped her stay focused when she’s at work. Her son was shy when he first started, she says, but now sometimes he doesn’t want to leave the classroom when she comes to pick him up.

Cruz’s family has long been a part of Mission Neighborhood Centers. Her older son volunteers with Youth Services during his school vacations. Her husband has been teaching Zumba to seniors there for years. She’d love to enroll their 2-year-old in the HeadStart program, too, but spots are limited.

However, with the money raised in the capital campaign, Ruiz plans to make room in those bright, cheerful classrooms for more kids like Cruz’s —making life in the Mission a little more manageable for many families.

“I don’t see this as ‘we’re just providing a service,’” Ruiz says. “I see it as an opportunity to disrupt.”

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