Head Start: Working for a Program That Works!

Who would have ever thought I would still be working as an Administrative Assistant here at the Head Start program in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, 28 years later?  When I started here on February 16, 1977, I was 28 years old, married with two young daughters in elementary school.  My husband was employed, and I thought that if this job did not work out or I did not like it, maybe I could find another or quit and continue my job as a homemaker.

When I was first hired, the job was half-time, five days a week, four hours a day — a good schedule for someone like me — and the pay was $2,700 a year.  After a year, I moved up to six hours a day, five days a week — still a good schedule because I was home when my children got home from school.  By the time my children were in third and fifth grades, I was working full time and in the process of getting a divorce.  That idea about maybe quitting was a distant memory.  Good thing I liked my job!

For those not familiar with Head Start, it is a comprehensive early childhood program for low-income children and their families that began in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”  The program is guided by a set of Program Performance Standards that specify that Head Start must deliver a wide range of services.  It is designed to maximize the strengths and unique experiences of each child and family.

When I began here, 51 children were enrolled September through May in a number of centers throughout the County.  Now we are funded for 222 children, some of whom attend full day/full year day care centers.  Although our funding has increased throughout the years, it has not kept up with inflation.  In particular, the cost-of-living adjustments which are designated to increase staff wages and benefits have been woefully small.  This year, it was 1%.  It is no secret that George Bush and his cronies are not friends of Head Start or any other social services programs for that matter.  It has taken me 28 years to reach a salary of $30,000 a year.

But left-wing, bleeding heart that I am, I really cannot complain too much.  Working here is a good fit for me.  The Head Start Director is a compassionate person, and the Executive Director of the Community Action Agency (our Grantee) has developed a fairly liberal set of personnel policies.  Because of my longevity with the Agency, I am entitled to 24 vacation days per year, one sick day a month (these can be accumulated), and four personal days a year.  In addition, fourteen holidays are built into the calendar.  Wow — I am almost never here!  Not bad!

Of course, my job has not been all sweetness and light.  A couple of past directors were pretty awful to work for.  One was a perpetual procrastinator, and the other was a micro-manager whose moods changed by the hour.  About twenty years ago, one of our teachers tried to get a union started, but this effort failed.

For the most part, employees are satisfied with their jobs, which is evidenced by the number who have been here for ten years or more.  I sometimes wonder why some of our teachers have not moved on to the local school districts whose salaries are much higher.  But it must be those other “perks” that keep people here.  I know that even during my “down” times with bad bosses, I weathered the storms because I knew I was a good employee and really liked those liberal policies.  If one of my daughters got sick at school, I could leave to pick her up.  If I need a vacation day in the middle of the week, I can take it.  If I need to leave early for a personal reason, I can do that, too.  But I do not take advantage of the policies.  Thus far, I have accumulated 130 sick days!

Now, at the age of 57, I am looking toward retirement.  For a while, I thought I would not retire until I am 66 and could collect my full social security benefits.  But the more I think about it, I do not want to wait that long.  Several employees in this agency are in their 70s and still wobbling in here every day.   I want to be able to relax and enjoy life — move to the city.  Maybe I’ll get a part-time job, and maybe I won’t.  If the Iraq war is still going on, I might become a professional protester.  In five years, I will be 62.  The social security checks will be a little smaller, but I have my pension plan and a house to sell.  So I should be okay.

In the meantime, maybe I will start to use some of those sick days!Toni Yates

Antoinette “Toni” Yates was born and raised in Ford City, PA.  She is 57 years old and has two daughters ages 37 and 35.  Toni has been employed with the Armstrong County Community Action Agency Head Start program in Kittanning, PA, for over 28 years.  She is a member of the local Communities That Care Prevention Board as well as President of the Kittanning/Ford City Youth Commission.  Toni tries to keep fit in mind and body by attending yoga and aerobics classes.