Luz Maria Hernandez struggled as she made the half-mile walk on a 94-degree day from her home to her children’s preschool. Not so much from the heat, but from the worry about how her family will survive once the Head Start program closes for the year.
"We are suffering a lot just to earn enough to buy food to eat and pay the rent," Hernandez said. "I don't know how we will do it now."
Hernandez and her husband work full time as farm workers. Their income falls under the federal poverty line to support them and their four children. Head Start offers their two toddlers healthy meals and an education — and it's free.
The Encanto Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Center in Oxnard is set up specifically to help people in Hernandez' situation. Rather than follow the typical academic calendar from the fall into the Spring, the program runs from January to September, the area's typical planting and growing season.
That means Encanto has just finished its year.
But Hernandez is not packing up her family and moving on. They're staying put.
A second strawberry harvest has extended work in Oxnard almost year round, according to Mariela Guido, who runs the migrant Head Start programs in Orange and Ventura Counties. Growers and parents are telling her that strawberry planting is now starting in September and October.
That is allowing some families to stay year round.
But it also means parents have a tough choice to make when the program is closed: work and pay a sitter or stay home and take care of the kids. Hernandez chose to stay home.
She and her husband average a take-home pay of about $350 each per week, she said. Rent costs $900 a month, and babysitters charge $15 each day per child for after school care — meaning it would cost her more in babysitting than she would earn planting strawberries this month.
“Because we have four kids we spend a lot on clothes and shoes for them. And then we have to save a lot to pay the rent,” Hernandez said.
The migrant preschool program in Oxnard is part of a network of centers serving farm workers in California and beyond. They started in 1969, just four years after Head Start began, and base their calendars on the planting and growing season in each of the communities they serve.
When families move on from Oxnard's strawberry fields to harvest tomatoes in Salinas or grapes in Bakersfield, programs there start their academic year. That allows families to seamlessly move from one area to another while their preschoolers keep learning letters and numbers. The program now operates in 40 states.
The programs don't just have a different calendar from traditional Head Start programs — they also have a different schedule. Farm workers have to be at the fields at 6 a.m., so the Oxnard program sends a bus to pick up the children at 5 a.m., which often means a 4:30 a.m. wakeup.
The children arrive at preschool and head straight for a sleeping mat to get another couple of hours of sleep before the learning begins.
Suzanna Zuniga, who has taught at the Oxnard preschool for 12 years, said that in addition to literacy and numeracy, teachers focus on elements of early development that other children might get at home.
"They learn routines to take care of themselves and to be independent," she said.
Guido said she wants to figure out how to adapt the programs to the new realities of farm workers. But across the board sequestration budget cuts forced her to close her centers two weeks earlier than usual this year.
Leticia Lira, who has worked the fields since coming to California from Hidalgo, Mexico, 12 years ago, said those cuts forced her to stop work, too, despite the hit to the family income.
“I was going to find someone to look after the children,” she said, but she'd had some bad experiences with babysitters. She has two children under five. They're now living off of her husband's income alone.
Cleo Rodriguez Jr., Executive Director of the Migrant and Seasonal Headstart Association, said it's not right to leave these families in the lurch.
“Our nation’s most vulnerable families should not have to worry about such situations," he said, "but rather be focused on working and being a strong parent.”
Some parents take their children out into the fields with them if the growers allow it.
Lira said based on what the farmers have told her, she'd never do that.
“They teach us that the chemicals can do a lot of damage to small children,” she said.
In fact, Lira and her husband are so afraid to expose their children to pesticides that they shower and change their clothes as soon as they get home.
"Even before we hug our children,” she said.