The Mount Hood Community College Head Start expansion has been ignited by the housing crisis and rising homelessness, but for kids to have a future, their parents also need attention. No group takes this notion more seriously than Head Start, the national organization that focuses on educating both children and parents alike from low-income socioeconomic backgrounds.

And nobody thinks of the children more in east Portland than Shannon Perez. As the family services manager for Mount Hood Community College Early Head Start, Perez oversees all the organization’s social services. She is intent on revolutionizing the Mount Hood Community College branch of Head Start so that it effectively tackles hot-button issues like the looming housing crisis and the exponential growth of the local homeless population.

“We know as a county that there’s a crisis and that homelessness is increasing annually due to a lack of affordable housing and the struggle to meet market rent,” says Perez. “There’s a really big push right now to prioritize homeless and foster families. We have a specific, highly measured way of performing outreach, and we have determined that these are the families in the most need.”

The MHCC Head Start program involves 16 center-based sites. These sites encompass a total enrollment of 1,286 kids. However, only 185 kids experience a full day of school (roughly seven hours compared to a partial day of three and a half hours.) There is a breakdown by age: Typically, kids aged 0–3 form Early Head Start programs, whereas kids aged 3–5 participate as part of the more traditional Head Start.

Increasing the student population is one obvious interest of the expansion. The type of child or parent being accepted into Head Start may also shift. Perez is looking to open Head Start doors to more families who fall into the 101–130-percent poverty level bracket.

Additionally, there will be an emotive focus in ensuring that many more kids shift from a partial school day to a full school day.

Perez believes extended school days are a necessity for both kids and their parents. This feeling has resonated with many of the parents also involved with Head Start who need a third party to occupy their kids while they earn food for the table.

“It’ll be beneficial to struggling families who have to balance work and school,” explains Kaela Patterson, a college student who is mother to Kori, a two-and-a-half-year-old Early Head Start student. “It will also give our teachers extra time to involve the curriculum more, and students won’t have to cram so much information in such a short amount of time.”

Overall, the MHCC Head Start is fundamentally parent-driven—parents with participating children make up the entire policy council of the MHCC chapter of Head Start. That means parents are at the heart of all Head Start decision-making.

Most concerns aligned with the ethos behind the expansion are the direct product of an expansive community assessment. Across the board, Perez believes the housing crisis is the largest public concern.

The MHCC Head Start chapter has been known to be extraordinarily charitable in the past. It remains one of the few chapters in the country that offers transportation services for both students and parents. Perez is currently eyeing new locations for classroom drop-off.

“We’re trying to partner with more locations that are strategic,” explains Perez, herself a mother to a young daughter. “We need to make sure our centers are in the areas where families need them most.”

Perez also claims Head Start is misunderstood. She believes most parents think of its spots as coveted and its waitlists long. This, she claims, is barely the case.

“There has been misinformation about how often we’re taking applications,” says Perez. “We take applications all year long. We never stop. There is a perception that waitlists are so long and it’s hard to get in, but that’s not going to be true this coming year.”

Sadly, new recruits are often the result of vacancies spurred by shifting neighborhoods.

“Families are always leaving,” says Perez. “It’s sort of an epidemic. It makes sense why people move to access affordable rent.”

The MHCC Head Start program hosts multiple application events a year. The next one is on April 17 at the Eastside Foursquare Church, 1122 N.E. 122nd Ave. #216. After that, there will be an additional event held at the Sunrise Center, 18901 E. Burnside St. on May 15.

MHCC Head Start’s home is at the Maywood Park Campus, 10100 N.E. Prescott St. For more information about the program, call 503-491-6111.

“There is onsite childcare, and families can apply for our programs and get a free meal,” promises Perez. “There may even be a little fun.”