This year, we learned that Kern County residents continue to suffer more from diabetes, heart disease and obesity than many other citizens in the state. That’s cause for alarm — and for taking action. Fortunately, our citizens — when challenged — have demonstrated that they can muster solutions that make our lives healthier.
Our medical center, for instance, made a complete turnaround after years of fiscal challenges. In the city of McFarland, the community launched initiatives to support walking and other outdoor activities that contribute to health and wellness.
One of the most successful long-term programs in the county that helps people is the Head Start program, operated by Community Action Partnership of Kern.
The partnership’s 48 local Head Start child development centers prepare underprivileged children for school and offer a spectrum of health care and wellness assistance to reduce health disparities. Study after study reveals that children enrolled in the 1,600-plus Head Start agencies across the United States are better adjusted socially — and are healthier.
• Children in Head Start are more likely to be immunized and receive dental checkups than non-participants;
• Head Start children also have healthier eating patterns, lower body mass index scores and are less likely to be overweight, compared to children in other traditional child care settings; and
• Children with disabilities that are enrolled in Head Start are more likely to access needed services.
As reported recently in The Wall Street Journal, a study by economists found that “childhood access to Head Start led to better long-term outcomes in the next generation, including higher high-school graduation rates and reduced criminal behavior.”
The Head Start program benefits parents, too, by helping them be more successful as adult role models for their children. For CAPK, a most important charge is to empower parents to support their children — not only in preschool, but to advocate for them throughout their educational careers. Enrolling a child in Head Start requires that parents be active in their child’s educational effort, as well as activities to improve their own lives — and then also to become community activists for Head Start.
The formula is simple: Healthier children and involved parents improves the chances that our community’s youth will acquire the skills and experiences needed for future wellness and success.
Think about that. A community program is helping families become better families. Kids win, parents win — and employers win. The bottom line for employers: Head Start provides resources for low-income parents to be able to work.
This is the Head Start advantage. Head Start alumni over the past half-century are enmeshed in all walks of American life: Attorneys, doctors, engineers, civic leaders and scientists — and, yes, even members of Congress. The current head of the Girl Scouts of America is a Head Start alum, as well as the CEO of the Ford Foundation. Locally, Kern County 5th District Supervisor Leticia Perez is “a proud product” of the program. They all remember Head Start as the place where, at an early age, they acquired a lifelong love of learning.
In Kern County, the impact from Head Start is significant: More than 2,600 children are currently enrolled, and it employs more than 600 workers in the county. That’s a payroll of about $24 million for the local economy.
The successes of this program are demonstrated. However, Head Start now faces a significant issue. Some in Washington D.C. favor turning the Head Start program into block grants to states, thus threatening the structure of what makes Head Start successful — how it transforms children and parents’ lives through the emphasis on education, health and overall well-being.
This would be a mistake for our nation — which currently has a million children enrolled in Head Start — and in our own backyard where Head Start enrollment is unfortunately just 25 percent of eligible children.
For more than 52 years, Head Start in Kern County has helped create a more capable, productive and valuable workforce that pays dividends for generations to come. This is a track record of success that employers and community stakeholders should understand and support wholeheartedly —both for the future generations of workers and for today’s working parents.
Russell Judd is the president and CEO of Kern Medical. Edward Condon is the executive director of the Region 9 Head Start Association.