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The new kids on campus? Toddlers, courtesy of Head Start

Now that Sarah Barnes' son, Samuel, 2, is enrolled in Head Start, it's lifted an extra stress off Barnes' shoulders. "It just makes life a little bit easier having child care right on campus," she says. "I can literally walk over here between classes and check on him."
Anthony Francis for NPR
Now that Sarah Barnes' son, Samuel, 2, is enrolled in Head Start, it's lifted an extra stress off Barnes' shoulders. "It just makes life a little bit easier having child care right on campus," she says. "I can literally walk over here between classes and check on him."

San Antonio College has a whole building designed for pupils who are much younger than the typical college student.

Nestled between modern academic buildings, the Head Start center provides free, federally funded child care programs designed to promote school readiness for infants, toddlers and preschoolers from low-income families.

Inside one of the classrooms, Samuel, a curly-haired 2-and-a-half-year-old, is attempting to walk down a plastic slide.

"Keep your bottom on the slide, Samuel," his teacher calls over to him. He listens and glides down, giggling with glee.

Samuel's mom, Sarah Barnes, is studying Business Administration at the college. On this particular day, she has three classes and a dentist appointment. Being a college student and a single parent is a lot to juggle.

"It can be so hard," says Barnes. "Sometimes I'm getting only three or four hours of sleep in order to get things turned in on time."

She's been grinding her teeth at night from the stress, and she's scheduled to get a retainer later in the day.

Barnes is among the nearly 4 million U.S. college students raising children while getting a degree. More than a third of those students attend community colleges.

Single mothers, like Barnes, account for almost half of student parents, and the vast majority of them have incomes at or near the poverty line, which means they'd qualify for Head Start.

But it's hard to take advantage of that program if you don't know about it, and if there isn't a center with a convenient location.

Research shows access to the kind of child care Head Start provides can remove serious barriers to getting a degree. And yet, out of about 3,000 community college campuses in the U.S., only about 100 have Head Start centers on-site. That's despite plenty of opportunity: There are more than 16,000 Head Start centers in the country, and it's not uncommon for them to relocate to address shifts in need.

A new five-year initiative between the Association of Community College Trustees and the National Head Start Association hopes to grow campus collaborations.

"It's a partnership that just makes sense," says Carrie Warick-Smith, who oversees public policy at the Association of Community College Trustees and who helped create a guide to set up new partnerships, called Kids on Campus. "It's mutually beneficial for all groups involved. For parents who are going to college, it means an easier commute. You don't have to make two stops and they know their children are getting a high-quality experience that's free. The college benefits because this makes it more likely that people are going to enroll, persist and graduate."

Head Start teacher Stephanie Perez, 23, leads a classroom full of 2-year-olds on San Antonio College's campus. She was once a student at the college, working toward her certificate in early childhood education.
/ Anthony Francis for NPR
/
Anthony Francis for NPR
Head Start teacher Stephanie Perez, 23, leads a classroom full of 2-year-olds on San Antonio College's campus. She was once a student at the college, working toward her certificate in early childhood education.

Before Barnes, in San Antonio, found out she was eligible for Head Start (she spotted the building while walking on campus), Barnes was hustling, and working odd hours, to pay for child care. "I started doing Uber Eats, with my son in the car," she says, laughing.

Now that her son is enrolled, it's lifted an extra stress off her shoulders. "It just makes life a little bit easier having child care right on campus," says Barnes. "I can literally walk over here between classes and check on him."

Head Start can be a gateway to other campus resources

While the potential to serve student parents is high, there are also benefits to the colleges and the Head Start centers themselves.

In a Head Start classroom at Manchester Community College in southern New Hampshire, teacher Mary Powers is letting her preschoolers, aged 3 to 5, pick their activity.

"Do I have two friends who would like to paint?" she asks the class. "Me!" two small boys cry out as they each hold up a hand in the air, wiggling back and forth until their teacher says their names.

Head Start programs get 80% of their funding from the federal government, but 20% has to come from the community. Community colleges often have unused space they can donate or offer for very low rent, filling the Head Start budget requirement. That's what's happened here in Manchester and at many successful partnerships across the country.

Barnes and her son eat breakfast before starting their day. Barnes is studying Business Administration at San Antonio College, and Samuel spends his days in a Head Start classroom on campus.
/ Anthony Francis for NPR
/
Anthony Francis for NPR
Barnes and her son eat breakfast before starting their day. Barnes is studying Business Administration at San Antonio College, and Samuel spends his days in a Head Start classroom on campus.

"Who would like to do the dollhouse?" Powers asks next. "Me!" the chorus of enthusiastic girls sounds. Powers counts them out, "One, two, three, four," and sends them to the carpet where they begin to furnish the doll house.

Prechooler Andrea is working on the kitchen. Her shirt has a big banana on it, with the words "friends stick together." Her family moved to New Hampshire from Dubai, and having preschool located on a college campus has helped connect her family to other resources. Her father, Adrian Tarape, hopes to become a college student one day and recently met with an admissions counselor.

"I asked about if I can enroll in automotive," he says, noting the college offers several degrees and certificates in Automotive Technology. "I'm interested in fixing a car, learning about the motor, the engine, things like that. I have excitement to do it. I'm curious."

This is not uncommon, says Carrie Marshall Gross, a professor of early childhood education at Manchester Community College who runs the education department there.

"It's an easy connection to make when you just have to go down the hall to be able to speak to somebody at the college," she explains, "and then next thing you know, they enroll in a certificate or a degree program."

She's had parents enroll in her early education classes, which she teaches in a classroom right next door to the Head Start preschool. Her college students frequently go next door to observe as part of the curriculum. "Having that right on campus is an extension of our college classroom in a lot of ways, " Marshall Gross says.

With a child care worker shortage, these partnerships offer a direct pipeline

It's common for community colleges to offer early education degrees and certificates. When a college also has a Head Start on campus, students can do lab work and work-study in its classrooms.

Nationally, there's a major child care workforce shortage, and the practical classroom experience helps provide a direct pipeline for graduating students to work in Head Start centers.

Perez did her student teaching in several of the campus' early Head Start classrooms and was hooked. "I've learned so much from being a teacher," she says. "I love being with the kids. I love teaching them new things every day."
/ Anthony Francis for NPR
/
Anthony Francis for NPR
Perez did her student teaching in several of the campus' early Head Start classrooms and was hooked. "I've learned so much from being a teacher," she says. "I love being with the kids. I love teaching them new things every day."

At San Antonio College, several of the Head Start staff were former or current education students. Stephanie Perez, 23, teaches in a classroom full of 2-year-olds. She was once a student at the college, working toward her certificate in early childhood education. She did her student teaching in several of the campus' Head Start classrooms, and was hooked. After graduating, she got a full-time job as a teacher.

"I've learned so much from being a teacher," she says. "I love being with the kids. I love working with them. I love teaching them new things every day."

Perez also had her daughter, Daleyza, when she was still a student. A professor in the education department connected her with the Head Start center, and it wasn't long before Daleyza was enrolled in the program. When Perez was doing her lab hours in the classroom, she'd peek her head into her daughter's infant room to check on her.

That's still the case now: Daleyza is 3 and in the room next door to where Perez teaches.

"I have other kids to attend," she says laughing, "so I'm like real quick, let me just see what she's doing."

Audio story produced by: Janet Woojeong Lee
Edited by: Steve Drummond & Nicole Cohen

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.