From Head Start to Harvard

When I was 4, I thought "Head Start" was just the name of my pre-school. This week, the program that put me on the road to success had to send all children home.

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Jenny Lu Mallamo
Courtesy of Jenny Lu Mallamo

Jenny Lu Mallamo

“Did anyone here go to Head Start?”

It was an innocuous question, asked by my statistics professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.  It might have been a rhetorical question, too, as the professor didn’t seem to expect anyone to speak up.

But I did, providing an empirical data point in a graduate seminar that was looking at the correlation between Head Start participation and success later in life. This was an academic discussion for everyone else but a personal one for me.

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In 1990 and 1991, I attended a Head Start program in Lincoln, Nebraska, that offered classroom learning as well as home visits. As a little girl of 4, I thought that “Head Start” was the name of my pre-school. It was only later that I learned Head Start was a federal program that specifically prepares children from low-income families for school, one that was temporarily shut down this week.

My family’s early years in America were not easy. My father’s graduate school stipend—around $500 per month—made up the bulk of our income. My mother, who had been a teacher in China but did not speak English, bussed tables at a local Chinese restaurant. Our meals often consisted of ramen noodles purchased with food stamps.

We were all supposed to return to China once my father completed his graduate studies, but the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square changed everything. As they watched the chaos in their homeland on TV, my parents came to believe I would have a better life here.

In addition to teaching me in the classroom, my first Head Start teacher, Ms. Cathy, often made home visits to my family’s apartment.  We spoke Mandarin, not English, at home, so these visits were meant to help me catch up. On the mornings of Ms. Cathy’s visits, my mother would make me take a bath and put on my nicest clothes so that I would look my best for my teacher.

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Seated at our kitchen table from the Salvation Army, Ms. Cathy worked with me on the differences between “the” and “that” and “this.” We counted numbers, practiced writing the alphabet, and talked about different shapes and colors. I say “we,” because with each new word and phrase I recited, my parents were learning English as well.

My parents believed that giving their child a quality education was key to achieving the American Dream. They also understood that early education would provide me with a critical foundation for future success.  We like to tell ourselves that, in this land of equal opportunity, a baby’s zip code should not determine her life trajectory. But all too often, it does.

When the budget cuts from the sequester took effect earlier this year, almost 57,000 children lost access to Head Start services. With this week’s government shutdown, those pre-schoolers who still had spots were sent home.

In my case, without Ms. Cathy’s patient one-on-one instruction and out-of-class tutoring, I surely would have started kindergarten behind my peers from higher-income homes where English was spoken as a first language.

To my parents’ and my teacher’s delight, I thrived in the classroom setting. Confident in my new vocabulary, I came out of my shell and started asking questions. By the end of my year in Head Start, I had served as a line leader at lunch and delivered the morning weather report to my classmates.

I can’t speak for how things turned out for the other eight kids in my Head Start class in 1990, but I was fortunate to have received the extra attention. It placed me on a road that led to a college scholarship and a rewarding graduate school experience. I am proud to be a Head Start alum who became a Harvard graduate.

My father finished his doctoral program in 1995. With the job and salary that followed, our family was able to live more comfortably. We moved into a modest house located in a safe neighborhood with good public schools.

I have had many wonderful teachers, but it is Ms. Cathy my parents talk about as the one whose dedication and patience proved that this country believed in their child as much as they did.

Jenny Lu Mallamo is a media relations associate at the New America Foundation. This was written for The Weekly Wonk