Head Start Heroics

Alyce Dillon remembers living in a public-housing project with three feet of raw sewage in the basement; she was on welfare, a high-school dropout and single mother in Minneapolis. But things changed in 1968 when she placed her son in Head Start, a federally funded education program for disadvantaged preschoolers. Because Head Start requires parent involvement, her son’s opportunity became one for her as well.

In 1969, Dillon helped found Parents In Community Action (PICA), a nonprofit that administers Minneapolis’s Head Start and other programs for low-income people. Dillon, who turns forty-nine in June, has garnered national recognition for her work as PICA’s executive director. Her success may be due to her inability to take “no” for an answer. “My mother used to say I never had proper respect for authority or never felt I couldn’t question those with authority,” she laughs.

Last year the once-adversarial Minneapolis school system appropriated $1.8 million to admit an additional 450 children into Head Start and provide added services for hundreds more. “That victory shows not only that we could do it, but that those who said we couldn’t have rallied around and helped us. That feels good.”

Dillon notes that without supplemental funding, many Head Start programs will suffer, losing good teachers because of poverty-level salaries. “Zookeepers make more money than teachers,” she says. “It has to do with the value our society places on children and women.”

Head Start is more important than ever. “More kids and families are falling into harder-edged poverty than what I faced,” Dillon says. But she’s optimistic that Bill Clinton will work toward solutions: “There’s a lot of rhetoric out there, but fortunately people who have his ear are now soliciting him on behalf of children.”