|By G. Michael Dobbs
Janis Santos (center) was recently honored by her staff for her 40th anniversary with Head Start.
Photo courtesy of Chris Marion of Chris Marion Photography.
SPRINGFIELD After 40 years, Janis Santos, the executive director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start Inc., is in a unique position. As an early childhood educator, she works with young people who were once her students.
"How rewarding is it to work with someone who was your student?" she asked during an interview with Reminder Publications.
Santos' 40th anniversary with the Head Start program was recently marked by a dinner with staff, parents, former student and community leaders as well as her receiving the Head Start Pioneer Award at the National Head Start Association (NHSA) Legacy Luncheon in Washington D.C.
In a letter dated April 19, Yasmina Vinci, executive director of NHSA wrote, "For over 40 years you have been dedicated to the children, parents and staff at Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start Inc. and their communities. The esteemed reputation of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start Inc. is due to your leadership in creating an educational experience for children that is unmatched in Massachusetts, and that has few equals nationally. The combination of passion, creativity, and leadership that you bring to Head Start and the early childhood community is inspirational."
Santos smiled at the thought is being called a "pioneer." For her, starting a Head Start program in her hometown of Ludlow in 1973 was simply an extension of her desire to teach young children. She started her program in the former Ludlow Boys & Girls Club and by 1979 was named the executive director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start Inc.
Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start is the second largest Head Start program in the Commonwealth.
Over the years, she said, "The challenges in Head Start have been many, but the rewards have been great."
She said the program itself, designed to promote school readiness for low-income students from ages to birth to 5 years, started out as a "grass roots movement" but is now one with a sophisticated curriculum and "2,500 regulations."
She said Head Start takes a holistic approach to education and involves the entire family, not just a child.
A glance to the wall in the conference room of the Head Start headquarters off Central Street shows the leadership position Santos has earned. There are photos of her testifying in Congress and working with Sen. Edward Kennedy, among others. Kennedy, she added, was "the champion of Head Start."
"Little did I know where Head Start would take me," she said.
Santos added, though, that any success of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start was due to the 300 staff members.
"It's a team effort. We all work together for the quality of life for the children," she said.
That team is now facing how it can react to the cuts made to the Head Start budget by sequestration, she said. Nationally, the cuts will force 70,000 children out of the program. Locally, Santos will see 164 children eliminated from her program, which already has a waiting list of potential students. Nationally, the program serves one million children.
With studies showing the importance of early education, Santos said, "Education overall should be at the top of the list."
She added, "It's frustrating."
Despite the challenges, Santos has no interest in retiring. Noting that her favorite Dr. Seuss book is "Oh, the Places You'll Go," she said, "I'm not ready to retire still. I have a lot to places to go."
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