Patty Allen’s parents didn’t go to college.
Her grandparents left school after eighth grade.
Yet Allen learned her family’s version of “the three R’s”: respect education, work really hard and choose a rewarding career.
Allen set her sights on teaching kindergarten – a job that didn’t even exist in the nearby town of Moore, Montana (pop. 193).
After high school, she earned a degree in home economics child development from the University of Montana and a master’s from Eastern Washington University, and has devoted four decades to helping disadvantaged prekindergarten youngsters succeed.
For the past 10 years, Allen has been district director of Head Start, a federal program administered through Community Colleges of Spokane that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition and parenting services to low-income children and their families.
The Washington State Association of College Trustees recently presented her with its 2018 Professional Staff Member Award, given to only one person at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.
During a recent interview, Allen discussed microwaves, immigration policy and what it takes to work with 2-year-olds.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Allen: On a 3,500-acre Montana ranch. We raised wheat, barley and cattle.
S-R: What was your first job?
Allen: When I was 17, I worked as a waitress at a cafe outside of town – kind of a truck stop – for $1.65 an hour.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class or activity in high school?
Allen: I was very involved with FHA – Future Homemakers of America. I became a state officer and national committee representative. I also was on the governor’s board for drug and alcohol abuse, was a page in the state Senate and class valedictorian.
S-R: How many in your graduating class?
Allen: Twenty-three, including three foreign exchange students – two from Colombia and one from Mexico. One of my classmates was (Gonzaga basketball star) Jill Barta’s dad, Dave.
S-R: Did you work during college?
Allen: Yes, two jobs. I worked in a child care center and was a home economist for a (Missoula) appliance store. Microwaves were new then – big, clunky and very expensive – and one month I put 1,200 miles on my car driving to outlying areas to teach customers how to use them.
S-R: What was your initial impression of early childhood education?
Allen: The pay wasn’t good then, and still isn’t. But it’s not the sort of career you go into for the pay. You do this because it’s your passion.
S-R: When did you come to work at Community Colleges of Spokane?
Allen: In 1990. I started out teaching at Spokane Falls’ Early Learning Center – campus childcare – and took over managing it two months later.
S-R: Why did the community colleges get involved with Head Start as a grantee?
Allen: The program provides comprehensive services – child care, nutrition and medical assistance – and most CCS students qualify because they are low-income. But the program also serves a much larger community. We have 10 different sites that offer Head Start and EHS (Early Head Start), as well as other services. We’re in all of Spokane’s community centers.
S-R: How many children does the district serve?
Allen: We’re federally funded for 669 Head Start children and 322 in EHS. We’ll also serve another 821 in the state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program next year, so more than 1,800 children total. And we typically serve another 25 to 30 percent throughout the year because some families vacate slots and others take their place.
S-R: Is there a waiting list for the campus-based Head Start programs?
Allen: Yes. At any given time, the waiting list might be as deep as 100. Many, many students graduate from SCC and Spokane Falls without ever getting their child into the program.
S-R: How has early childhood education evolved since you entered the field?
Allen: More regulations – both federal and state – and national accreditation. There’s much more emphasis on school readiness and making sure providers are properly trained. Criminal background checks are mandatory.
S-R: Are those good things?
Allen: They are, because consumers can call and find out how well programs perform. There’s a statewide quality rating system – from 1 to 5, with 5 the highest rating.
S-R: What is Spokane’s score?
Allen: Our sites are all rated 4. A 5 is very difficult to get. Both of our campus programs are nationally accredited.
S-R: A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found evidence that the benefits of Head Start “fade” by the time children reach third grade. Did that undermine Head Start’s credibility?
Allen: A little. But the public school system doesn’t support the comprehensive services we provide. So it’s unfair to blame Head Start for what happens four years after a child leaves our program. If society were truly successful at knocking out poverty, there wouldn’t be a need for Head Start in the first place. Unfortunately, the need in our community is great, and it continues to grow.
S-R: Is funding reliable?
Allen: Actually, this year we got a 2 percent COLA increase at the federal level, which we weren’t anticipating. We’re also getting more state funding. Support for Head Start tends to be bipartisan, but funding never keeps pace with the need.
S-R: How do low-income parents learn about Head Start opportunities?
Allen: Our best recruitment tool is word of mouth by enrolled families – always has been and probably will continue to be so.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Allen: I’ve really enjoyed working for the community colleges. I’m surrounded by great people and a great system.
S-R: What do you like least?
Allen: When federal, state and local regulations don’t align.
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Allen: That we make a difference. I’ve seen (community college) students who would have dropped out of school if they hadn’t had Head Start. Many of these families lead very complicated lives – single parents, homeless parents, incarcerated parents – and we provide resources they may not otherwise have. One of my staff started out as a Head Start parent, then became a bus aide, a teacher, an educational manager, and now is our director of quality assurance and training.
S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Allen: I’d have gotten more business background. People don’t see us as a business, but when you’re dealing with as much money as we are, it’s business.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead for your program?
Allen: As baby boomers retire, there aren’t as many people stepping up to take their place. When I started, we’d get 50 to 60 applicants for a job opening. Now we’re lucky if it’s 10.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in applicants?
Allen: The appropriate education. A degree in elementary (level teaching) doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be good at early childhood. Besides training, they need to be flexible, patient and really believe in what we’re doing.
S-R: Given your experience with early childhood education, do you have any opinion about the current policy of separating immigrant children from their parents?
Allen: I don’t know why anybody would separate families. We did a research grant with Washington State University around adverse childhood experiences and triggers for trauma. If you’re separating parents from children, there’s going to be a lot of trauma. The question I would ask is, “At what cost?”
S-R: You’re four decades into your career…
Allen: And my husband, Jim – my high school sweetheart – has been with Northwest Farm Credit Services 40 years.
S-R: Do you have an exit plan?
Allen: We’re working on it. I can see retirement in the not-too-distant future. My team of directors and I started succession planning a couple of years ago, but it will be up to the community colleges to decide. I’ve been informed they’ll do a national search.
S-R: Will you and Jim move back to Moore, Montana?
Allen: (laugh) No. Two of our three adult children and one granddaughter live here in Spokane, and we have a nice place up in Sandpoint.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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