- Published: January 24, 2011
Original Source | The Oregonian
By Anne Saker, Friday January 21, 2011
A continent away from the halls of power where R. Sargent Shriver gave his life to public service, one of his most significant legacies comes to order in a North Portland classroom.
"All right, friends, time to stop talking and finish up," teacher Barbara Rhiger says to a table of six 4-year-olds in tiny chairs.
The discussants conclude their exchange about food, Play-Doh and rain to bear down on orange slices, a little cereal and milk. Then it's time to engage the brain, for D is the letter of the week.
Head Start, the federal education program begun in 1965, lost a founder Tuesday when Shriver died at age 95; his funeral is Saturday. Since Head Start's creation under President Lyndon B. Johnson, more than 25 million children younger than 5 have learned their numbers and colors through an early-education mandate considered advanced at the time.
Though he ran with George McGovern on the 1972 Democratic presidential ticket, Shriver drew a fraction of the attention aimed at his Kennedy in-laws or even his wife, Eunice, who founded Special Olympics.
But Shriver was the get-it-done person through the 1960s, getting off the ground not just Head Start but the Peace Corps, VISTA, Job Corps and Legal Services for the Poor.
Ron Herndon, director of the 1,000-student Albina Head Start in North Portland, is chairman of the board of the National Head Start Association. He also was one of the first VISTA volunteers in 1965.
Shriver, Herndon says, "fought tirelessly against formidable odds because there were many politicians from north and south who wanted the money to go through the same political system that cut these families out in the first place."
The battle goes on: This week, conservative members of Congress elected on the tea party tide in November pledged to cut the federal budget by $100 million; Democrats say a slice that big could, among other things, knock 350,000 students out of Head Start.
At its birth, Head Start was a summer program, and Portland was one of the first cities to join, says Eileen Isham, co-director for Head Start in the Portland Public Schools. Now Head Start runs through the school year in nine sites across the city.
"We started with 200 children," Isham says. "Now, we have 822 and a waiting list of 500."
The $8.5 million budget for the Portland Public Schools program comes largely from federal funding; the state and city governments kick in some money as well. To qualify, a child must come from a poor home, measured as a family of four making less than $22,000 a year.
The education nonprofit The Children's Institute in Portland reports that about 12,600 Oregon children are enrolled in Head Start, about 65 percent of those who are eligible. This year, Oregon is spending $104 million on the program - half is state money, half is federal money.
As the rain pelts North Commercial Street Friday, parents deposit little ones outside Applegate School, where three Head Start staffers gripping umbrellas escort the children to the door. Inside, hallway walls are covered with construction paper snowmen, notable for the exuberant use of cotton balls, and cut-out stars rigid with glue and glitter.
Lantoria Davis of Northeast Portland walked her daughter, Tatiyana, 4, to the classroom where teacher Barbara Rhiger stood ready to begin the day. Davis said she did not know the name Sargent Shriver, but his handiwork is plain in her child.
"She likes to write," Davis said, "and she knows her B, T, V and A's. She'll write little notes that I might not be able to read, but they make sense to her."
Nancy Kajitsu, an accidental dot of gold glitter on her chin, has clocked 30 years as a Head Start teacher of 3-year-olds - "can't imagine quitting now," she says. But even Kajitsu didn't know until this week about Shriver and his influence.
"I always thought it was LBJ who did it," Kajitsu says. But Shriver's reach touched her not long ago when she got a letter from a former student "who told me she wouldn't be in college without Head Start."
Kajitsu sighs, laughs, wipes a tear from her cheek.
Isham said Head Start has evolved beyond simple classroom instruction to engage parents to get involved in their children's education from the start. Some parents join the cause.
Tina Flowers of Milwaukie put her children through the program and then became an educational assistant, 27 year ago.
"It's like a home here," she says as she guides a little boy to the classroom sink to brush his teeth before reading time. "I just love the kids here. I go to work happy."
Flowers also had never heard of Shriver: "But he must have been a kind-hearted person who loved children."
Rhiger once taught first and second grade at Boise-Eliot School. Four years ago, she came out first over more than 200 applicants to become a Head Start teacher of 4-year-olds at Applegate.
"Being at Boise-Eliot lets me kind of know where these people are headed," Rhiger said. "When I was at Boise-Eliot, I could see the difference in Head Start kids: You know how to be attentive. You have been building social skills, and we know that people who are socially adept have more success no matter what."
Rhiger summons children to sit around her. "D is the letter of the week, remember?" she asks; the children nod. She holds up a coloring worksheet with pictures of a drum, a duck, a dog, a doll.
"I want you to color all the things on this sheet that begin with D," Rhiger says. "So, would you color the drum?"
"Yes!" cry out the children.
"But would you color the nnnnnnnnnnnnecklace?"
"No, that's right. Can you tell me why?"
"Because necklace begins with N!" comes the chorus.
Rhiger says Shriver's fundamental purpose with Head Start lives on.
"My goal," she says, "is for these kids to get to a teacher who says, 'Wow! Where did you come from?'"