Why community colleges are teaming up with Head Start child care centers And not just toddlers — infants and preschoolers too. A new effort aims to help the 4 million college students raising kids by putting Head Start programs on community college campuses.

The new kids on campus? Toddlers, courtesy of Head Start

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

About 1 in 4 community college students are juggling attending classes and raising kids. Head Start already serves millions of children from low-income families, providing them with educational and other services. So why not locate Head Start centers on community college campuses? As NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports, it's an idea that's catching on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

STEPHANIE PEREZ: Careful.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Inside Stephanie Perez's Head Start classroom, it's a buzz of activity. Students are drawing and doing puzzles. There's a block station.

PEREZ: What are you guys working on?

NADWORNY: Perez sits down in the reading nook on a colorful carpet. Her students, mostly 3-year-olds, cluster around her.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I want to sing "The Wheels On The Bus."

PEREZ: "The Wheels On The Bus"? Y'all want to sing that one? (Singing) The wheels on the bus go round and round...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Singing) Round and round...

NADWORNY: This early Head Start classroom is next to the student center at San Antonio College.

PEREZ: You guys ready to line up?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah.

NADWORNY: There are only about a hundred programs like this - Head Start centers located directly on a campus at a community college that serve college students and local families.

PEREZ: All right. Let's go. We go...

NADWORNY: But across the country, there are more than 16,000 Head Start centers and about 3,000 community college campuses. That's a ton of opportunity to help millions of student parents get their degrees.

SAMUEL: Slide - we (laughter) go.

PEREZ: Samuel, bottom on the slide - thank you.

NADWORNY: Samuel, the curly-haired 2 1/2-year-old trying to walk down the slide, is Sarah Barnes' son.

SARAH BARNES: Oh, my God (laughter). He's a character.

NADWORNY: Barnes is 25, studying business administration at San Antonio College. She wants to be a lawyer someday.

BARNES: It can be hard sometimes only getting, like, three to four hours of sleep a day just so you can get things in on time. I'm getting retainers because, apparently, I'm so stressed out that my teeth are grinding at night.

NADWORNY: She's a single mom, like 1 in 10 college students. Research has shown that getting access to child care is a major barrier for student parents. Not having it can lead to students dropping out. For Barnes, having a high-quality free child care option right on campus has made life just a little bit easier.

BARNES: I can literally walk over here and check on him.

NADWORNY: And do you do that, like, between classes?

BARNES: If I have time, yes. I am taking 18 hours a semester, so I'm, like, going through it (laughter) literally.

NADWORNY: But this partnership doesn't just make sense for student parents like Barnes. It makes sense for the campuses and the Head Start centers. Head Start programs get 80% of their funding from the federal government, but 20% has to come from the community. Community colleges often have unused space they can donate or offer for very low rent, filling that Head Start budget requirement. The National Head Start Association and the Association of Community College Trustees are embarking on a five-year plan to make more of these partnerships happen.

MARY POWERS: Good morning.

NADWORNY: Good morning.

POWERS: Come on in.

NADWORNY: At a Head Start Classroom located on campus at Manchester Community College in southern New Hampshire...

POWERS: Who would like to do the doll house?

NADWORNY: ...Teacher Mary Powers is letting her preschoolers, aged 3 to 5, pick their activity.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Me.

POWERS: Yeah. One, two, three, four - I knew that.

ANDREA TARAPE: Esther, come with me.

NADWORNY: One of the children heading to the wooden doll house is Andrea Tarape.

ANDREA: So over here is the door.

NADWORNY: Her shirt has a big banana on it and says, friends stick together.

ANDREA: Oh, I need more chairs.

NADWORNY: Andrea moved here with her parents from Dubai. Having Head Start on a college campus has helped connect their family to other resources. Her father, Adrian Tarape, hopes to become a college student one day. He recently met with an admissions counselor.

ADRIAN TARAPE: I asked about if I can enroll automotive.

NADWORNY: Manchester Community College offers degrees and certificates in automotive technology.

TARAPE: Fixing the car, something - change oil. It's about the motor, the engine, like that.

NADWORNY: There's another benefit to this partnership. Many community colleges, including the one in Manchester and San Antonio, offer early education degrees and certificates.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: The main topic for today is storytelling.

NADWORNY: College students are regularly in the Head Start classroom for work study and lab classes.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: I did the good morning song, the weather song, the job chart.

NADWORNY: With a major child care workforce shortage, having a Head Start on campus gives college students practical experience in a classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: Luana (ph), wash your hands, Luana.

NADWORNY: Providing a direct pipeline for graduating students to work in Head Start centers.

SAMUEL: Look, fire truck.

NADWORNY: Back in Samuel's classroom in Texas...

BARNES: That's a fire truck?

NADWORNY: ...Sarah Barnes has returned to pick up her son.

SAMUEL: Vroom, vroom.

BARNES: Vroom, vroom. We need to go home.

NADWORNY: Barnes is done with her three college classes and her dentist appointment.

SAMUEL: Hold my hand.

BARNES: Hold my hand? OK. Oh, he's ready.

NADWORNY: Now it's time to take Samuel to the park, then make dinner, put him to sleep and finally start on homework.

BARNES: And then tomorrow, same thing (laughter).

SAMUEL: Come on.

BARNES: Come on. Yeah.

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, San Antonio, Texas.

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