All the News That’s Fit to Print


Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with The New York Times reporter, Jason DeParle.  The topic of our conversation was East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s experience with Head Start’s Designation Renewal System (DRS).   This week, all that I shared with Jason was boiled down to a single cite: John Menditto of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project warns that harsh penalties may dissuade programs from serving especially disadvantaged populations like migrants.  If you know me, you know I had lots more to say than just that!

The article in The New York Times provided an excellent review of the pros and cons of DRS.   And as a special #FlashbackFriday post to From Harvest to Head Start, I wanted to share excerpts from the text of a speech I made a few years ago at the National Head Start Association’s Leadership Institute recounting our experience with DRS.  Enjoy!


Our migrant and seasonal farmworker parents work from sun up to sun down.

Lake City, South Carolina is a city in name only. According to the 2000 census, Lake City had a population of 6,478. Certainly not the population of a bustling city.  There isn’t a lake nearby either. What surrounds Lake City is farm land. Lots and lots of farm land. So much farm land, in fact, that 60 years ago, Lake City was known as the “Bean Capital of the World.”

As the decades passed, the crops grown in and around Lake City changed, as did their means and methods of harvesting. That is the one constant for Head Start grantees serving farmworker families. The communities we serve will always be linked to the land and to decisions about what to plant and when to plant made by large agri-business companies and smaller family farmers who own the land.

 By 2009, the crops bringing migrant farmworkers to lake city were peaches and tobacco. The farmworkers would begin to arrive with their children in June, taking up temporary residence in mobile home parks, often sharing trailers to make ends meet. While moms and dads would wake up before dawn to start preparing for their work in the tobacco field and peach orchards, a Head Start school bus driver with a team of bus monitors would navigate a school bus into the mobile home parks to collect their children aged zero to school age and bring them to our Head Start center. Those school bus routes would run five days a week throughout the summer and into the fall, when the farmworker families would depart in October back to Florida for the start of the citrus season.

Juan and little boy

Juan Rangel, a former ECMHSP student enrolled in college, is carrying a little boy from the Fields of Dream Head Start Center.

 Like many large Head Start grantees, East Coast delivers services in accordance with two models: in some local communities we deliver these services directly; and in other local communities we deliver these services through a contract with another non-profit with the capacity to deliver high-quality services in a local community. In Lake City, in 2009, East Coast contracted with Wateree Community Actions, Inc., a fantastic regional Head Start grantee dedicated to providing high-quality and comprehensive Head Start services.

 I often speak about the degree of difficulty of the mission we are trying to accomplish at East Coast and the degree of difficulty of the mission of our delegates like Wateree Community Actions, Inc. One area that contributes to this high degree of difficulty is the fact that the home language of parents whose children attend our Head Start program often is a language other than English. In South Bay, Florida, many farmworker families speak Creole; in Indiantown, Florida, many farmworker families speak indigenous languages. In the case of families attending the Lake City Head Start center – the home language of most families was Spanish.


While their parents work in the fields, ECMHSP provides these smiling children high-quality Head Start services.

 For Wateree Community Actions, Inc., in 2009, the home language of farmworker families created a real dilemma. As I noted at the outset, the population of Lake City is around 6,500, of that total only 68 individuals identified themselves as being of Hispanic origin. How is a Head Start program offering seasonal employment as infant teachers going to find degreed teachers who also are fluent in Spanish?

 Well, perhaps you are not surprised to learn that Wateree was not able to find degreed infant teachers who also were fluent in Spanish. What Wateree did have were experienced and degreed infant teachers, all of whom had taken introductory Spanish classes at the local community college.  And what Wateree did have were parent volunteers in the classroom who were fluent in Spanish.  And what Wateree did have was a deep commitment to learning and development of those children such that those children were in a safe and nurturing environment and not left back with babysitters who would be tasked with the responsibility of caring for multiple children in a crowded trailer.

 As you no doubt have surmised, Wateree’s inability to comply with a single Head Start performance standard – a standard that provides when a majority of children in a classroom speak a language, at least one classroom person must speak that language – was the single deficiency that put East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in the first re-competition cohort in December 2011.  One center, among more than 50 centers. A single deficiency for a high-quality Head Start grantee.

 And so began an 18-month odyssey into the deep end of the re-competition pool. Our journey began with our Board of Directors and our Policy Council having to make a number of important strategic decisions. In the for-profit world, they call these decisions “bet the company” decisions because a wrong choice could mean the end of the company.

 One decision was the governing bodies decision not to be involved in a high-profile lawsuit that was filed by many Head Start grantees challenging the legality of the designation renewal system. Instead, the Board and Policy Council endorsed a different approach: we would look at re-competition as an opportunity, not as a threat; and we would write an application that would compel the office of Head Start to fund us on our terms.

 Another important strategic decision was the decision to include all of our service areas in our application – even those service areas that involve the highest degree of difficulty. This, of course, is a basic flaw in the designation renewal system. When Head Start grantees are putting at risk all of its Head Start grant funds by operating a single center, there is a tremendous incentive to carve out those centers that are the hardest to operate – to carve out those centers with the greatest need. I am proud to say that the Board and Policy Council of East Coast never wavered in its commitment to operating centers that entail the greatest degree of difficulty – we never wavered in our commitment to serving families with the greatest needs.

 The degree of difficulty of what we do turned out to be our lifeguard in the recompetition pool. The only competition came from another migrant Head Start grantee in Florida, who sought to take away all of our Florida centers.  For us, providing high quality Head Start services to migrant farmworker families in Florida is relatively easy. Florida is the home base for our families. They reside in local communities from November through May and East Coast is able to recruit and hire bilingual and degreed Head Start teachers without the same degree of difficulty as we do in upstream locations like Chandler Mountain, Alabama, Parksley, Virginia, or Lake City, South Carolina. But, the decision of another migrant Head Start grantee to compete with East Coast proved to be the single best development in the re-competition process because it motivated us to write an application of exceptional quality.

 In addition, the competition we received had the effect of raising our profile within the Office of Head Start. Our regional program manager and Program specialist always knew about the phenomenal work we were accomplishing, but the director of the office of Head Start and other Senior leaders within OHS did not fully appreciate the Head Start mission we were fulfilling. Through the competition, OHS leadership learned in intimate detail, who we were. This reversal of fortune would not have been possible had it not been for the competition that was brought our way.

 As you know, our journey into the deep-end of the re-competition pool was a success.  We retained much of our Head Start service area.  However, re-competition did not leave us un-scathed. Two of our delegate agencies applied to receive funding directly from the office of Head Start and, as a result, East Coast is no longer responsible for the quality of Head Start services to farmworker families in Georgia or New York. In addition, we have transitioned more centers from a delegate agency model to a direct service model so that we could more closely monitor compliance with all of the Head Start Program Performance Standards.

Photo 1-FSC reading a book

Our staff prepares children to be successful in school.

But for East Coast, on a day-to-day basis, little has changed as a result of the designation renewal system and re-competition. East Coast was a high-quality Head Start program prior to recompetition and we are a high-quality Head Start program after re-competition.  Prior to recompetition we served families living in rundown mobile home parks and crowded labor camps; and after re-competition, we serve families living in rundown mobile home parks and crowded labor camps.  Prior to re-competition, East Coast operated Head Start centers in areas that involve the highest degree of difficulty; and after recompetition, we do the same.

 At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, our Board, Policy Council and all of our dedicated staff wouldn’t change our mission for anything. We certainly wouldn’t change it because of the Designation Renewal System and recompetition.

A Warm “Thank You” from the Sunshine State

Dear Reader,

As ECMHSP looks back at the many accomplishments of 2018, one word comes to mind: gratitude.

ECMHSP is so grateful for our dedicated staff and hardworking families at each of our offices and Head Start centers.  They are the heartbeat of our organization — from the administrative offices in Raleigh, all the way down to our centers in Florida, where we have, once again, opened the doors at our centers to provide high-quality and comprehensive Head Start services to farmworker families.

Christine Alvarado, Chief Innovation Officer, accompanied me to visit the Florida Direct Service Regional staff the week of December 16, as they held the region’s annual staff development and recognition meeting at the ECMHSP Stuart and Bartow regional offices.  We had the opportunity to congratulate staff as they were recognized for completing their certificates, degrees and years of service. Each site had around 150 members in attendance.

During the visits, Christine provided an in-depth informational update on the ECMHSP Strategic Plan for the years 2018 to 2023. The Strategic Plan’s goals and objectives, timeline and individuals who will be responsible for completing the objectives were presented and shared with the groups, in addition to, the importance and significance of the plan.  Staff were reminded how everyone has an important role in the implementation of the strategic plan, and how together, we can accomplish the goals we set for the benefit of the families we serve.

I was given the opportunity to provide an update on this past year’s many accomplishments as well as the current events taking place at ECMHSP.  Additionally, I shared the Project’s exciting future outlook. We have many new opportunities and partnerships coming up in 2019!  I was especially grateful for the opportunity to personally thank the staff for their hard work, dedication and commitment to working with the parents and children, and assuring the mission of East Coast was at the forefront of their work every day. This is who we are. This is what we do.


Dr. Jose Villa and Christine Alvarado with ECMHSP staff and special guest, Santa.

There was lots of joy, happiness and excellent food shared with and by everyone as we celebrated our staff and families. We even had a special visit from a jolly old friend, Santa.

I want to close out 2018 by sharing a warm THANK YOU from the ECMHSP Family to yours.  While there is so much to be grateful for, there is also much work still to be done.  We look forward to our continued partnership in the new year, where together, we can continue the important work of preparing our children of farmworker families for success.

Wishing you all a happy holiday season and a prosperous year ahead!

Dr. Jose S. Villa
Chief Executive Officer at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project

Getting a Head Start on 2019


Sharee Harris is a preschool teacher at our ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center in Florida.  She attended our administrative self-assessment in Raleigh last week.  She shares her experience in this interview.

What is your story at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project?

My cousin told me about the opportunities at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, so I applied straight out of high school.  I was hired nineteen years ago, in December 1999, as a substitute teacher for the ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center.  Back then, you could start working with a high diploma.  I have worked my way up from there, advancing to become a preschool teacher.  I achieved my first degree in 2013 when I earned my Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education from River State College.  In 2009, I transferred for one season to the ECMHSP Chandler Mountain Center, located in Alabama.  It was difficult finding qualified teachers in Alabama, so ECMHSP started a program to transfer teachers from one center to the other.  The season lasted from June to October.  I remember the center served 140 children that season.  Although it was tough being away from home, I knew they needed my help.  My goal is to keep moving up in the program.  I plan on going back to get my bachelor’s degree in the spring of next year, then I would love to run a center one day.  That’s my long-term goal.


Sharee receiving an achievement award from ECMHSP. 

What is the favorite part of your work at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project?

My favorite part of working for East Coast Migrant Head Start Project is being able to educate our children by helping them develop the skills that they need to become a successful part of their communities and their families.

You recently had the opportunity to participate in ECMHSP’s self-assessment, could you describe what took place?

We reviewed the assessment results from the prior three years. This information allowed us to see trends of where our strengths and our weaknesses are within our program.  This information will be used as an implement to our five-year strategic plan and goals for our program.

Is this the first time you attended a self-assessment?

Yes.  This was a wonderful experience to be able assess the program as a whole and not just at the center level.

In your opinion, what is the most positive takeaway from the self-assessment? What are two things you learned about ECMHSP during the self-assessment?

My most positive takeaway from the self-assessment would have to be learning about how changes are made within the program.  First, I learned that everyone in this program strives to make ECMHSP the best high-quality early learning program in Head Start.  I also learned that good communication, teamwork, parent involvement, and being provided with daily support creates a positive learning environment for teachers and children.

Could you share one thing you learned from other ECMHSP staff members?

The one thing I’ve learned from other ECMHSP staff is everyone is here to do the same job.  We prepare our children for success, advocate for our families, and provide high-quality early learning education to our children.


Sharee’s 2017 class preparing for their transition to kindergarten ceremony. 

Give a Head Start to this Holiday Season!


We are thrilled to kick-off our end of year Annual Friends & Family Campaign.

Our campaign funds vital support for farmworker families – such as the Michael P. Murphy Family Emergency Assistance Fund and our pro bono immigration services practice. You can learn more about the services and support we provide by visiting our website:

This year we have set a goal of $25,000.  We know you will help us reach it.  Our 2018 Annual Friends & Family Campaign will run through January 15th.  One way you can get us off to a great start is by donating directly through this link:


East Coast Migrant Head Start Project is committed to preparing the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers for success.

During this holiday season, help us provide hope to our farmworker families.  We look forward to you supporting East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s mission in 2019.  Our work would not be possible without your generous contributions.

East Coast Migrant Head Start Project wishes you and your loved ones a safe and happy holiday season!

Driving Children to Success

Christina Arnold Pic

Christina Arnold has been a part of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project since May of 2017.  I recently had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with her.  Keep reading to learn more about why she’s such a key team member for ECMHSP.

Can you please tell me a little bit about your story at East Coast Migrant Head   Start Project?

I had spent seven months as a substitute bus driver for the Hamilton County School District in Florida. One day during our regular morning meeting, we were told that East Coast Migrant Head Start Project was looking to hire bus drivers.  This information had been shared by ECMHSP’s Transportation Manager, Charles Leach.  The opening was for the ECMHSP Jennings Center, conveniently located seven miles away from my house.  At the time, I thought working there between May and October would be perfect, and then I would go back to the Hamilton County School District.  My hire date at ECMHSP was May 5, 2017.  Prior to officially starting, I got sent to two different areas of South Carolina to get training.  I had never traveled outside of Florida.  The mandatory training before becoming a bus driver for ECMHSP was 40 hours.  I also received three days of bus monitor training.  I was away from home for about a week and a half.  ECMHSP took great care of me during this time.

What did you enjoy the most about the training you received?

Although it’s a long process, the yearly training sharpens you.  I really liked that ECMHSP focused on safety being their number one priority.  The training showed that you need to step it up.

What happened after the season ended at the ECMHSP Jennings Center?

Once the season finished, I was offered to work at the ECMHSP Okeechobee Center I and II between November and May of 2018.  I already knew how everything worked and really enjoyed being here.  However, Okeechobee was more than five hours away from my home, so I had to talk to my kids before accepting.  As a child, my son, Richard Jr. learned to read using a Bass Pro magazine, and one of his dreams had always been to go fishing at Lake Okeechobee.  The possibility of being able to take my family fishing made us very excited.  After receiving my family’s support, I left for Okeechobee.  At the end of December 2017, I was able to make my son’s dream come true.  We caught over 40 fish during our trip!

Christina Arnold - fishing trip

Making the dream come true at Lake Okeechobee!

How did going to Okeechobee change you?

Traveling to Okeechobee gave me financial stability. I had the chance to save up money to pay bills that I had pending.  I’m glad I was able to help out other centers provide transportation services to the families.

Is it hard to leave your community behind in Jennings?

The hardest part is not being as involved with my own kids.  I drive back home one weekend a month.  While I’m away, my sister is a big help with Richard Jr., my 17-year-old son.  He’s a junior in high school and works part-time.  My daughter Chasity, 21, is currently doing basic training for the Army in Oklahoma.  She wants to pursue a career in the medical field, so she signed up to be a combat medic.  My daughter received special permission from the Army to go home for Christmas.  She’ll graduate from basic training in January.


Left to right: Chasity (21), Richard Jr. (17), and Christina.

What do you like the most about driving for ECMHSP?

I enjoy the interaction with the kids.  I enjoy seeing them happy every morning.  It’s just a joy in my heart to see the kids growing and learning in a safe environment.

What’s a typical day for you?

I usually start my pre-trip inspection around 4 a.m. There are more than 140 items that I have on my checklist. My first pick up is around 5:20 a.m., then I arrive at the center around 6:30 a.m.  After the kids are safely at the center, I finish the paperwork I must submit.  For example, the seating chart and attendance.  Then, the post-trip inspection begins, and we clean and sanitize the bus interior to get it ready for the afternoon.  Around 4:30 p.m., I complete another pre-trip inspection.  We start loading the bus around 5:20 p.m.

Christina at Okeechobee II

Christina Arnold always has a smile on her face.

Can you share a little bit about how you work with other staff on the bus to make sure children arrive safely at the center?

We’re constantly communicating to make sure the kids are being transported safely.  On the way to our Head Start center, the bus monitors entertain the children by singing with them.  When the last child is escorted off the bus, the bus monitors inspect the bus to make sure no child gets left behind.  They also report any incidents that occur while the children are on the bus.

Is there anything else you would like our ECMHSP community to know about          driving a school bus for us?

It means a lot.  It’s been a great experience, and I look forward to a long future here.

Christina A.

Christina gets ready for her pre-trip inspection.

Thank you for taking the time to let me interview you, Christina. You go above and beyond to make sure our children arrive safely at our centers in Florida.  Without you, we know many of our little ones would not have a safe way to reach our Head Start centers in Florida.  As you get ready to start your bus driver responsibilities at our ECMHSP Fort Pierce Center, we wish you a great season!

Leveling the Playing Field for our Families


Children learn and play in a safe environment at the Jennings Early Head Start Center.

Yesterday, The Huffington Post published its video story on the ECMHSP Jennings Center in Florida.  It features farmworker, Vianey Lopez, who serves as the President of the center’s Parent Committee.  ECMHSP owes a debt of gratitude to Vianey for sharing her incredible story.  It is truly amazing advocacy and a shining example of the parent leadership at ECMHSP!

ECMHSP dedicated staff work to ensure we are offering high-quality Head Start services to our families every day.  The video brought to the forefront two of our many Head Start stars.  Sheri Anastasio, the Jennings Center Director, and Marimar Ramirez, the center’s Family Services Coordinator, could not have done a better job telling our story.  They went above and beyond!


Sheri Anastasio, Center Director at the Jennings Early Head Start Center.

ECMHSP is so pleased and proud with the finished product.  The video showcases the best of what ECMHSP has to offer.

This is who we are.  This is what we do.

We ask that you now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the film! Click on the image below to view the video.


Advocating for Early Childhood Education at the National Level

Daniel Jaime's Family Pic

Daniel Jaime’s childhood memories always take him back to the fields.  He was the youngest of five boys.  His mother was a single mother, who despite facing many obstacles as a migrant farmworker, always stressed the importance of getting an education.  Check out my recent phone interview with Daniel.

Could you tell me a little bit about your background?

I was born in Winter Haven, a city in Polk County, Florida.  I was part of a migrant farmworker family.  I recall spending seasons in North Carolina, Georgia, and Michigan.  At the age of 19, I started my own family.  I enrolled my firstborn in the Head Start Program offered through Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) in 2002.  My second and third child also attended RCMA.  As a migrant farmworker parent, I was very involved in my children’s education.  I was elected as the center’s President of the Parent Committee.  I also served on the Board of Directors for three full terms.  At the time, RCMA was a delegate agency of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, and I participated as the Treasurer for its Policy Council.  In 2005, I stopped migrating for work.  RCMA offered me a position as an Outreach Worker in Polk County.  The following season, I became a Center Coordinator for RCMA’S before and after school programs, serving more than 140 children that season alone.  After four years of being at RCMA, I decided to continue my career at the ECMHSP La Familia Center as Center Director in October 2009.

I know you’re currently enrolled in college. Can you tell me more about the degree you’re pursuing?

In 2013, I graduated with my Associate in Science degree from Polk State’s Early Childhood Education and Management program.  Next year I will be getting my Bachelor’s in Business Management from Polk State College.  I want my kids to know how important education is.  I have five kids ranging in the ages of 18 and three.  Two of them will be graduating high school next year and are already looking into what college programs they want to pursue.

La Familia Center - Nov 2018

The ECMHSP La Familia Center opened for the season on Thursday, November 15.

What is the most exciting part of opening the center?

You must have a passion for children and their families.  My greatest thing is working with the ECMHSP La Familia Center staff and getting them ready to provide the best services for our children.  I enjoy seeing staff that start with a high school degree, then obtain a CDA, and work hard to get an Associate Degree.  Although every season includes different obstacles, I’m always hopeful that we’ll have a successful season.  All our staff from last season have returned, which is very exciting.

How do you maintain strong relationships with parents?

Always making our families feel welcomed at our center.  I want them to feel that it’s a good place to be.  I always take the time to present myself to our new families.  I tell them about the policies and procedures that we all follow.

What countries are primarily represented by your center’s farmworker families?

Most of our families are from Guatemala and Mexico.  Last season, we served 11 kids from Puerto Rico that were part of displaced families from Hurricane Maria.  Two kids are back this season.

GFWC Florida at La Familia Center

The GFWC Four Corners Junior Woman’s Club visits our ECMHSP La Familia Center.

What are the center’s community partnerships?

We have community partnerships with Community of Faith, Catholic Charities of Winter Haven, Helping Hands Angels, The Veterans of Davenport, and the GFWC Four Corners Junior Woman’s Club.  During the last few years, the GFWC Four Corners Junior Woman’s Club has been making a holiday donation of more than 100 stockings for the children at my center.  I know our families look forward to their support next month.

Daniel Jaime at NACMH

Daniel Jaime, Center Director at the ECMHSP La Familia Center, recently attended the NACMH biannual meeting on November 14, 2018. 

Daniel Jaime is one of our most active staff members.  Not only does he support other centers with training as needed, but he also serves as a Council Member on the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health (NACMH), which has 16 members nationwide.  He was nominated to the NACMH when he was a Board of Director for the Central Florida Health Care.  Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Daniel in Bethesda, Maryland for NACMH’s biannual meeting.  The Council heard presentations from federal officials and experts on issues facing agricultural workers, including the status of agricultural worker health.  The NACMH will now make its recommendations to the HHS Secretary about the organization, operation, selection, and funding of migrant health centers and other entities funded under section 330(g) of the PHS Act.