According to EOPA’s latest required filings, the agency received $13 million in federal funding to administer Head Start programs at a number of Toledo locations. There are 2,043 preschool age children enrolled in the program. 118 of those kids are from Spanish-speaking families. That figure represents nearly six percent of all children served by Head Start and does not include other Latino children enrolled in the preschool program whose families speak English.
That presents an extra challenge to the six bilingual staff at EOPA, according to social services manager Celeste Taylor, who is from the Dominican Republic. Other staff members come from different Latin American backgrounds: México, Perú, and Colombia among them.
“So we display more of the true flavor of what the Latino population here in Toledo really is,” said Ms. Taylor, who grew up in New York City. “We have a lot of Cuban children, Colombian children, not just Mexican-American. So we are diverse, even within the Hispanic population.”
Two of the Latino employees work directly with Head Start, while the other three workers are involved with other EOPA programs. However, all six employees are called on regularly when needed to provide bilingual services to immigrant families when there is a language barrier.
“We want to make sure we have a presence in most of the programs EOPA services, so no matter what, Spanish-speakers can be served,” explained Ms. Taylor. “Spanish-speaking families take more time to deal with and they need more services. We just cannot refer them anywhere, because if we refer them, we have to make the phone call and go with them. That’s why it’s important someone from our agency can speak the language.”
Her job is to link the Head Start families with other support services, providing a holistic approach to a child’s education, development, and well-being.
“We recruit the children, we enroll them, we place them in the classroom, and provide any type of supportive services to ensure there are no obstacles to a child coming to class,” she said.
However, most of the agencies Ms. Taylor works with in the community have staff which only speak English, forcing EOPA’s workers to go the extra mile to provide translation services for immigrant families at appointments elsewhere.
“Much of the time, once a parent gets to know us, they only want to deal with us,” said Ms. Taylor. “They know we know their circumstances, we’re not going to ask too many questions. So you cannot say, ‘just go call United Way, they’re going to help you.’”
Element of Trust
Much of the dilemma involves an issue of trust on the part of immigrant parents who have come to a strange community. Ms. Taylor explained that Latino Spanish-speaking moms stay at home with their children while their husbands work, so they don’t interact with neighbors or the community-at-large. They then rely on the bond established with EOPA workers to help them provide for their children.
“Most of them are here without family. Many of them stay after the migrant season,” explained Ms. Taylor. “It provides a different dynamic.”
She admitted some of the Latina EOPA employees can feel overwhelmed by such a need, because they essentially are on call 24/7 for emergencies with migrant or immigrant families.
“We also recruit volunteers who sometimes help us from the university,” said Ms. Taylor. “We get a lot of workers who like to come in and volunteer their time, particularly when it’s time for parent-teacher conferences. We have to translate everything. Under the law, we must provide everything, all the information in their native language.”
For example, developmental screenings to ensure the child is progressing in an age-appropriate way are handled in Spanish. Ms. Taylor called it “a massive undertaking.” All applications are translated into Spanish as well.
The EOPA social services manager described one instance where a Spanish-speaking parent was involved in a car accident, so she wasn’t home when the child arrived via bus from Head Start. She ended up keeping the child until the parent could be located, because of the language barrier. But she also admitted the working is rewarding nonetheless.
“To see a child who comes to us in September unable to speak English at all and then by the end of the year, they don’t even want to speak Spanish anymore,” said Ms. Taylor. “We get calls from parents even after the child has graduated (Head Start), and all of a sudden the mom’s talking to them in Spanish and they return in English. They say, ‘Can you tell me what he’s saying? He doesn’t want to speak the language?’”
That, in turn, forces the parents to eventually become bilingual, to, in order to converse with their child and assimilate into the community.
“The only thing is, they’re segregated,” Ms. Taylor said. “They don’t know the language, they don’t drive, because the men are out working. It takes the mom longer to get acclimated to how things are here.”
Ms. Ramos teaches Spanish in a daycare program also offered at EOPA, so many preschool-age children are learning a second language. That also encourages Spanish-speaking children to socialize with other kids their own age. But Ms. Taylor stated it is up to the public schools to continue Spanish language classes once children reach kindergarten and beyond.
The acclimation process becomes more complete once parents learn English through ESOL programs and access other services within the community, such as Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), El Centro de la Mujer, and Adelante, Inc.
“We also hold parent meetings and invite all the agencies so they can be introduced to those agencies,” said Ms. Taylor.
“We want them to feel comfortable. We want them to feel secure. As a family, we want them to progress, because it was done for us. Most of us came here with parents who also didn’t speak the language. It was through our teachers that we became fluent, because our parents couldn’t help us with our schoolwork at the house. We are trying to pay it forward. Somebody did it for me. I was able to educate myself in this country and I want others to be able to do the same.”
Ms. Taylor explained she grew up among other Latino families in New York City in an area she called “Little Dominican.” But she admitted Toledo’s immigrant families are more isolated, because families are scattered throughout the community and don’t have that benefit.
“This is really different. It’s not California or New York,” she said. “You have to find one another, so they tend to stay alone, on their own. They don’t mingle with anybody because they’re afraid. We have to assist them in any way we can if they choose to stay here and become productive citizens.”
But the concern for the families is once the children leave Head Start, the parents are on their own. Ms. Taylor questioned whether Toledo Public Schools and other districts have the same Spanish-language resources and whether information is sent home in English. Such a lack can present a hardship for an immigrant family down the road.
“Now all of a sudden they’re calling you, because they happened to send their child to school and the baby has come back and they don’t know to look at TV to see if school is closed because of snow,” she cited as one example. ”It may sound minute, but if you don’t know, you just sent your baby out in the cold.”
But Ms. Taylor is not concerned about the future of Head Start locally, now that EOPA will have to compete for federal funding. She believes established programs like her agency has will give them a competitive advantage, because staff members already know the reporting requirements and other factors involved, as opposed to a new non-profit agency.
“It’s unfortunate that they now believe they have to put us in a competition, but I have no doubt and no fear that this isn’t one of the best programs here and I don’t think anyone can compete with such a major, diverse program,” she said with confidence.
The federal Dept. of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, announced new regulations in November which are aimed at better accountability. The agency stated last month that EOPA is among 132 providers nationwide which will be forced to compete to keep their Head Start grants. Head Start providers in Columbus, Detroit, and Monroe County, Michigan also are on the competition list. It is unclear whether TPS or larger local non-profits such as the Urban League of Greater Toledo or YMCA-JCC will compete for future funding.
“We provide a lot of services. We are mandated to provide a medical staff, a disability staff, a social service staff, a nutrition staff. There are several components that make us up—it’s not just one thing to have a program. Nobody can do it as well as us, because we know the performance standards required. I just believe this is a way for us to become better.”