Tuesday, August 14, 2007
41 years of giving kids a head start
Read Shanna's blog
Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
Cleo Sims was the office manager at Burrell Memorial Hospital when the phone rang one day in May 1966.
It was Osborne A. Payne, the Roanoke director of a new federal program called Head Start.
"I need you right away," he told Sims. He offered her a job as bookkeeper. The offer came with a caveat, though: Because of the way the federal program was funded, Payne couldn't promise long-term employment.
"I can guarantee you a job for a year," Payne said bluntly.
Sims liked the challenge. She stayed a year.
And 40 more.
On Aug. 31, after 41 years with Head Start, she will retire as its director.
"I love this agency," Sims, 68, said recently, sitting behind a large desk in her spacious corner office with a view of Campbell Avenue.
"I love what we stand for."
Famously self-effacing and even-tempered, Sims is modest about her role in launching Roanoke's Head Start program. During her tenure, it has touched nearly 30,000 children in the Roanoke region, according to Total Action Against Poverty, which has managed the local Head Start program since its beginning.
Jeanna Deurscherl | The Roanoke Times
Head Start Director Cleo Sims (right) and Selena Childress sit in a classroom of 3-year-olds at Head Start in Roanoke with students Landon Shell (left) and Tya Anderson. Sims is retiring Aug. 31 after 41 years at Head Start, and Childress will replace her.
- Head Start is a national program that promotes school readiness for low-income children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services.
- In the Roanoke region, Head Start serves a total of 900 children at 18 centers in the counties of Franklin, Craig, Botetourt, Alleghany, Rockbridge and Roanoke, and the cities of Roanoke and Salem.
- Roanoke regional programs operate on a $6.6 million budget.
"If you went to the people in Philadelphia [Head Start's regional headquarters] and Washington, I think you'd find Cleo is the best Head Start director in the United States," said Cabell Brand, who established Total Action Against Poverty in 1965.
A few months back, Michigan State University sociologist Carl Taylor talked to me about what he called "the middle person," an adult savior who intervenes in a child's life to try to help the child overcome deficits that might hold him or her back.
Sims is one of those "middle" people. With her retirement, the community will have one less person willing to stand for 900 current Head Start children who can't stand for themselves.
One less person willing to hug an angry and overwhelmed single mother worn down by life's circumstances and bad choices.
One less person who understands that you can't help struggling children without tending to the needs of their struggling families.
In her four decades with Head Start -- 26 years as director -- Sims never worked as a classroom teacher. Her jobs were always on the administrative side, first as a bookkeeper, then supervising the summer program, then as purchasing and planning coordinator and, beginning in 1981, as director.
But she helped shape, sustain and eventually oversee the program that has tried to level the playing field for society's disadvantaged children.
In one way or another, Sims was behind the scenes, paying the bills, keeping an eye on the bottom line, hiring staff, signing off on curricula, scrapping for resources to give youngsters a chance when a casual observer looking at their circumstances might conclude they didn't have one.
Not too long ago, she ran into one of those former youngsters.
More than 30 years ago, the then-little boy lived with his grandmother around the corner from one of the program's centers. Sims didn't teach the students, but she knew some of them. This one was, in her words, "a hellion."
He would cut up in class and run away to his house. Yet, as they have in innumerable cases, Head Start teachers began breaking through. Slowly, the boy began developing the social skills that the program emphasizes in addition to education and health care.
Recently, Sims boarded a private bus. The driver was that little boy from long ago, now grown and productive.
"I told him, 'I'm so proud of you,' " Sims said smiling, recounting her conversation with him. "You were terrible. You were a hellion."
Influencing lives is what middle people do.
"We'd like to be that 'middle person' that these children need," Sims said, referring to the collective agency rather than her personal imprint on it. "We would like to be that way."
That Sims views her role integrally with Head Start's isn't surprising.
"Cleo is totally committed to Head Start," said Ted Edlich, executive director of Total Action Against Poverty.
"She is so talented in building good relationships. She has the largest number of people on the TAP staff report to her. The way she manages that, she's totally honest and upfront with people," Edlich said.
"She has such a caring spirit," said Selena Childress, who will replace Sims.
When the program first began, Sims said, some people viewed it as a "black program." But Brand proudly recalled that Head Start became the first integrated school in the Roanoke Valley.
The first center was on Shenandoah Avenue and had about 100 children.
At first, the program focused on the child, Sims said. But in the early 1980s, Head Start expanded its mission. To help children, program leaders realized they had to help the families from which the youngsters come.
That has included helping parents become literate, so they can read to their children. Or directing them back to school so they can get better jobs to better support their children.
"I have seen so much growth in our parents," Sims said. "When they walk through the door, we have to take them where they are."
I asked Sims the difference between children of 40 years ago and those of today.
"We didn't see the behavior we see in kids now," Sims said. "Cursing, throwing blocks."
"Forty-one years ago, parents were more engaged," she said.
In her understated way, I knew what Sims was saying even though she didn't say it. Parental involvement heavily influences children's behavior.
As a symbol of Sims' influence on Head Start, the program's signature building has her name on it. The center on Shenandoah is called the Brand-Hardin-Sims building, for Brand, the TAP founder, Bristow Hardin Jr., TAP's first executive director, and for Sims, the woman who helped build Head Start in Roanoke from the ground up.
"I was humbled, honored to have my name on the center because usually you have to die to have something named after you," she said chuckling.
In retirement, Sims will spend more time with her two daughters, two granddaughters and her husband, Joe, known for his fabulous cooking.
Sims said she will "exercise a lot more and maybe learn to play golf," though she really has no interest in the latter.
"I just want to kick back and enjoy."