UTPA, Head Start team up to offer education and hands-on learning
Posted: 05/25/2011
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The University of Texas-Pan American helped Brenda Salas further her education so she could be a better teacher to her Head Start students.

Head Start teacher Brenda Salas, pictured center, reads off cards of colors and shapes to her students during a game of Colors and Shapes Bingo. Pictured with Salas from left to right are Gabriel Nelsen, Renee Zuñiga, Isabel Lawson and Lorenzo Escobar.

Now, Brenda Salas is helping current UTPA students become better prepared educators by having them observe her class.

Salas teaches 3-year-old children at the UTPA/Hidalgo County Head Start program housed at the University.

The UTPA/Hidalgo County Head Start program began in the 2009-2010 school year as a result of an agreement the College of Education made with the federal program.

Previously, the College of Education received a five-year grant from the Department of Education to help educators with the Head Start program complete their bachelor's degrees in early childhood and elementary education. That grant, called the South Texas Advantage Project (STAP), expired in 2010.

Meanwhile, the University had built two demonstration and observation classrooms and was looking for ways to bring in children so that UTPA students taking child development classes can have first-hand experience studying and working with youths. Head Start was looking to open another facility.

So the two entities formed the agreement that Head Start would operate a center at UTPA using the observation classrooms and that UTPA students would study the preschool-aged children for their child development classes.

"Sometimes we can see them observing us," Salas said. "The kids say, 'Look, they're here.' They know there are students there."

The children look back at the University students at first, then resume their normal activities. The Head Start students and their parents are made aware that University students and faculty will be watching them from time to time, said Salas and UTPA faculty.

There are about 17 Head Start students in each of the two classrooms who are taught by one teacher and one teaching assistant. The program also has another educator who specializes in working with children who have special needs.

Dr. Irasema Gonzalez, a lecturer in the college's Department of Curriculum and Instruction and former director of the STAP, said the agreement allows the University to provide more hands-on experience for their students than what they would be able to do at any of the area public schools and quicker feedback from faculty members and fellow classmates.

Three-year old Brizell Arredondo celebrates the last day of class at UTPA Head Start with fellow students by hitting a pinata and participating in other activities.

"(University) students get to go in and work with the (Head Start) students while fellow classmates observe. We observe, evaluate and critique them," Gonzalez said. "It's really neat because we don't get to do that when we're in the school districts because we don't have as much access to the children."

The partnership with Head Start also gives faculty members more opportunities for research, especially those who teach early childhood education and bilingual education, since many of the students in Head Start are English language learners, Gonzalez said.

"At first we thought parents are not going to want to be as involved, but now there's actually a waiting list, Gonzalez said. "Most parents want to send their kids to these two classrooms."

Because of the collaboration UTPA has with Head Start, the University has been able to host parent conferences for the past four years on campus to allow parents to see the education opportunities beyond secondary school.

"For many of the parents of these children, these children are going to be first-generation college students," Gonzalez said.

Students in Gonzalez's class had the opportunity earlier during the Spring 2011 semester to enter the Head Start classes for observations. There they saw the children listen to teachers read to them in English and Spanish, work on puzzles and other activities.

Angela Fuentes, who was in block two of the education program in the 2010-2011 school year, said being able to observe the classrooms is a great opportunity because she is able to pick up ideas of what to do when she starts student teaching. She said she was impressed by what she saw in the classroom with the 3-year-old students.

"I haven't been able to observe 3-year-olds, so it was a different background, mostly their bilingual experience, it was very interesting seeing the teachers transition from English to Spanish," Fuentes said. "I think they behaved really well. The classroom management was really good."

The relationship UTPA and Head Start have formed has benefitted the families of Head Start students, said Dalia Gutierrez, UTPA Head Start center manager.

Just having a center on campus has been inspiring for parents, said Gutierrez, who has been with Head Start 23 years, and manager of the UTPA Head Start center for about a year.

"I'm very grateful and I'm glad as a center manager," Gutierrez said. "It is very good that the parents have this here. I think they're proud to bring their children to school."

For more information about UTPA/Hidalgo County Head Start, call (956) 381-2465 or (956) 380-1088.