“Good job, Mama.” For Katelynn Capps – a single mom juggling the responsibilities of parenting while earning the equivalent of a high school diploma – these three simple words can mean the world. “Good job, Mama,” the teachers often tell her when she picks up her 5-month-old son from Early Head Start, a program that provides free early childhood education as well as social and health services to infants and toddlers.
“Good job, Mama,” say the other moms, many of whom share her struggle of being young and poor and raising a child on their own.
Dayton was 6 weeks old when Capps first brought him to the Early Head Start site in downtown Spokane.
Located in the same building as Crosswalk – an emergency shelter and school drop-out prevention program that provides services for homeless youth – the child care center upstairs has enabled 18-year-old Capps to work toward her GED, knowing that her baby is safe, comfortable and close by.
“I can come upstairs and say hi and tell him that I love him,” said Capps, who arrived at Crosswalk as a homeless teen. “I definitely needed to go back to school, and there was no way I could do it if this place (Early Head Start) wasn’t here.”
She may have to find other options. The local administrators of Head Start, a national school readiness program for low-income children, is considering moving the program from Crosswalk to the East Central Community Center, about three miles away.
For Capps, it would mean two more bus rides each day – which translates to less classroom time.
After taking a bus downtown from the North Side, she would have to take her baby on another bus, drop him off at East Central and then return downtown. Since Dayton receives only three hours of free child care, Capps would also have to leave her GED class early to pick him up again.
Since Capps and some of the other moms also have other challenges to overcome, another bus ride could mean the difference between finishing school and becoming a dropout, said Christina Jensen, a parent and member of the local Head Start policy council.
Although Jensen has transportation and even has a 5-year-old currently enrolled at the Head Start program in East Central, the Spokane Valley mom has emerged as a strong advocate for keeping the Early Head Start program at Crosswalk.
“You can’t take this place away from these girls,” said Jensen, who also has a 3-year-old at the Crosswalk location. “You can’t imagine what it means to them.”
The Spokane County Head Start/ECEAP/Early Head Start serves nearly 1,600 children at more than 30 sites. Early Head Start, which provides free part-time care for children 6 weeks old up to 3 years, operates at seven area locations including Crosswalk.
Early Head Start has been at Crosswalk since 1992. Local administrators of the program – which is operated through Community Colleges of Spokane’s Institute for Extended Learning – are considering moving it because of the growing need in the East Central area.
Administrators have received numerous requests from parents to start an Early Head Start program at the East Central Community Center, said Anne Tucker, public information officer for Community Colleges of Spokane.
East Central has a Head Start for 4- and 5-year-olds, she said, but it would be beneficial to parents to also have Early Head Start for younger children.
“The need has grown in the East Central neighborhood and on the west side of town, but not downtown,” said Tucker. “Adding the Early Head Start component from Crosswalk will serve more families.”
Early Head Start at Crosswalk has room for 16 children, but only two are from Crosswalk families, according to Tucker, who noted that the proposed move to East Central would reserve four of the 16 spots for Crosswalk parents. Crosswalk also has a high turnover rate, she said.
Of the 15 families who have children enrolled at the downtown Head Start (one family has two kids), three are from the North Side, three travel from the South Hill area, four are from the area classified as “west,” and five are from East Central and the Valley.
Like other Early Head Start sites, the Crosswalk location has a waiting list. Of the 11 on the list, only one is a Crosswalk parent, according to Tucker. (Some of the Crosswalk advocates dispute this, saying there are three Crosswalk moms on the waiting list of nine.)
But the numbers alone don’t tell the entire story, say Jensen and others who would like to see Early Head Start stay at Crosswalk.
Most of the Crosswalk moms can’t apply for child care until September, she said, which is when their classes begin. But the slots are often full at that time, forcing them to seek child care elsewhere or not at all.
The move wouldn’t just be a mistake, it would be “morally unacceptable,” said Kent Hoffman, a local psychotherapist and one of the originators of the Circle of Security, which has helped parents better understand the needs of their children.
Hoffman has spent more than a decade volunteering at Crosswalk by helping teen moms and dads as they develop attachments and bond with their children.
“While I believe an argument can be made regarding ‘saving tax dollars,’ I don’t believe this argument makes sense when we’re discussing many of the high-risk parents and children impacted by Early Head Start at Crosswalk,” he wrote in an e-mail to administrators.
“… Here’s my bottom line: When it comes to need, not all children are created equal. Some need modest help, some need even more. And then some require intense intervention.
“The parents and children who have benefited from the remarkable gift provided at Crosswalk EHS often fall into the third category. If Crosswalk EHS leaves downtown, where will they turn?”
The moms who benefit the most from this program don’t always translate into statistics that look good on paper and are in compliance with national standards, Hoffman said.
But these women and children are among the most fragile in the community, he said, and the support they’ve received at Early Head Start has transformed their lives.
“Who can put a price tag on that kind of change?” Hoffman asked. “Even one mother a year experiencing a transformation in knowing she is loved and freshly able to love her child in a new way would, in my estimation, be worth all the money spent on all the families in the program.”
For Stephanie Cooper, who was 16 when she got pregnant with her oldest child, the combination of Crosswalk and Early Head Start made all the difference.
Cooper, who described herself as “an out-of-control teen,” graduated from high school in 2006. She’s 22 now, receives a steady income from her job at the Coeur d’Alene Casino and is making plans to go to college.
Her eldest, 5-year-old Alex, is a kindergartener at Opportunity Elementary while her other son, 3-year-old Jordon, is a preschooler at East Central’s Head Start.
“They gave me confidence and made me realize I wasn’t alone,” said Cooper, who enrolled both her sons at Early Head Start at Crosswalk while finishing her graduation requirements. “They gave me skills. They taught me how to listen and how to love my children.”
Although her kids have graduated from Early Head Start, Cooper returns to Crosswalk on a regular basis to visit her sons’ teachers and stay in touch with other moms.
In the same way that she and her sons were sustained by the care and support of the Early Head Start teachers, Cooper provides reassurance to Capps and other mothers.
“Good job, Mama,” she tells them. “You can do it. You are not alone.”