Campus: San Francisco State University -- November 7, 2003

On The Right Track: Head Start Thrives

In the five years since the University won federal designation to manage Head Start operations in San Francisco, the program has improved dramatically, showing a 21 percent increase in the number of children served throughout the city and more services offered to families.

"We're doing many creative things here that are not being done elsewhere," said Jean van Keulen, executive director of San Francisco Head Start and a longtime SFSU education professor. "We've become the beacon Head Start program for the nation.

"Through contracts with San Francisco childcare agencies and providers, 1,404 Head Start children, ages 3- to 5-years-old, now receive free full-day, year-round services. The arrangement allows parents who are moving from welfare to work to attend school or job training knowing that their children are in safe, nurturing environments preparing them for school. In addition, the Early Head Start Program, which assists pregnant women, infants and toddlers, includes slots for 64 children that are part of the overall total number of youngsters served.

Before the University's Urban Institute won federal designation in 1999 to operate Head Start in San Francisco, the program faced widespread criticism after being cited for deficiencies and mismanagement. Many thought the program was in ruins as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families asked the agency operating the program to step down.

With the University's help, the program has made strides in better serving families with high quality, comprehensive services. San Francisco Head Start children, served at 53 centers throughout the city, speak 28 languages and represent 43 ethnicities.

The major milestones of the Head Start program during the last five years include:

  • A total of 1,404 low-income children and their families are enrolled, up from 1,160.


  • A total of 53 sites throughout the city -- 13 locations are within city schools, two are within public housing projects and one center at the Head Start headquarters -- offer community college courses for credit allowing parents and staff members to earn an associate of arts degree.


  • The number of children served at many sites has increased. For example, the Mission site serves 340 children, up from 240.


  • A total of 18 childcare agencies and providers contract with Head Start, up from 2.


  • Children now receive full-day, year-round services compared with the half-day services they received in the past. Children also now receive mental health services.


  • About a dozen SFSU nursing, social work, public health, business administration, mental health and early childhood development students work with the Head Start and Early Head Start programs.


President Robert A. Corrigan calls the Head Start program "an inspiring, national example" of what can be achieved when a community-oriented university and a receptive community pool talents and resources. More than 30 agencies partner with Head Start to provide health, social, nutritional and educational services for children.

"San Francisco State University may have taken the first steps, but the San Francisco Head Start program of 2003 would not be what it is without the exceptional range of community partners who have whole-heartedly joined with the University," he said. "Together, we are truly transforming the futures of many of San Francisco's high needs children and families. Dr. van Keulen has told me that many of our agency partners say that they have never before partnered like this -- and now that they have, they couldn't be more enthusiastic.

"Van Keulen attributes the success to a true commitment from the board of directors, staff members and the policy council, made up of parents and community members. She adds that a qualified workforce being paid competitive salaries has helped realize these goals. She also noted that a citywide computer system linked with all the centers has helped facilitate the process and improve services.

During a visit to a center last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer, impressed with the improvements, bestowed her highly prestigious Excellence in Education award to the Head Start program.

"In just four years, Dr. van Keulen and her staff have completely turned around San Francisco Head Start and made it a model for programs across the nation," said Boxer.

Boxer established the Excellence in Education Awards to recognize and raise awareness of teachers, parents, businesses, and organizations working to make positive changes in education. While Boxer frequently visits schools, the award is reserved for only a selective group.


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