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Carmen Camarena says that if it weren’t for the Community Action Commission’s Head Start program, life might have been very different for her seven children.

“I feel Head Start really helped them a lot,” the soft-spoken Camarena said in Spanish translated by her daughter Isabel Carmarena-Tovar. “I feel my children really got that head start.”

The Santa Maria family’s story is typical of thousands of families whose lives have been improved by CAC’s Head Start program. More than 1,100 children and 500 families each year are assisted with preschool, child care and other health programs.

The commission, UCSB Gevirtz School of Education and county school districts last week unveiled results of new studies of children who participated in the Head Start program showing just how much it affects lives.

The report showed that 81 percent of Head Start children in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District were in the top two Kindergarten Student Entrance Profile (KSEP) levels, compared to 36 percent of children who didn’t attend preschool.

KSEP was developed by the Gevirtz School of Education through six years of studying children in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. It identifies how prepared students are to enter kindergarten and successive grade levels. It also provides a tool that allows teachers to more specifically target their intervention efforts.

Camarena’s children fit into those groups. Eusebio and Carmen were field workers in Guadalupe when they enrolled their children in the Head Start program there.

Carmen also volunteered at the center when there was no work available in the fields, and she carried the lessons she learned there home. She emphasized to her children the importance of education.

“She always told us school came first,” Isabel said. “She told us, ‘You don’t want to work in the fields.’”

None of them did.

Isabel is administrative services manager for CAC’s Santa Maria office, where she has worked for 20 years. Her siblings have careers in banking, medicine and business management.

One — youngest daughter Leticia Camarena-Fernandez — has earned an associates degree in paralegal studies from Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Virginia Union University.

The hard work also paid off for Eusebio and Carmen, who now own three tire stores in the area. Two of their boys, Jose and Javier, manage the family stores.

CAC’s Holly Carmody outlined new information that shows how effective the county’s Head Start program is.

Statistics from the studies show that Head Start students start off behind the learning curve because of their demographics, but progress rapidly because of the foundation provided by the service.

Carmody said 75 percent of Head Start children live in poverty, compared to 21 percent of all children in the county. She said 66 percent of them are English learners, 33 percent are overweight for their age — compared to 11 percent for the entire county — and 26 percent have parents who are unemployed.

Despite the roadblocks, statistics from a study of Desired Results Development Profiles (DSRP) show Head Start children are succeeding in school at a rapid pace.

The profile shows that the probability of students being in the top two developmental levels in 10 separate learning categories range from 24 percent to 58 percent in fall assessments to 75 percent to 92 percent in spring assessments.

“It shows Head Start is doing a good job preparing students for entering school and beyond,” Carmody said.

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