Bonnie Epps has taught in Operation Breakthrough’s Head Start program for 27 years.
That’s more than half of the nearly 50 years the agency has existed.
It was formed in August 1964 as the flagship agency for former Gov. Terry Sanford's fledgling North Carolina Fund, the state’s response to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
The NC Fund brought a mandate to create experimental projects in education, health, job training, housing and community development, with an overarching goal of reducing poverty among African Americans and other ethnic minorities.
For Epps, 59, Operation Breakthrough (OBT) has been more than an experiment or simply a place to work. The agency’s Head Start program has served as an educational oasis for her family.
One daughter and eight grandchildren have attended the agency’s Head Start program, a free pre-kindergarten program for children ages 3-5 whose parents’ combined income falls below federal poverty guidelines, which is about $23,550 a year for a family of four.
Epps said another grandchild is on the way and also will attend an OBT Head Start program when the child comes of age.
“Head Start is a good program,” Epps said. “We’re getting them ready to move on to the next level.”
Epps’s oldest grandchild, the first to enroll in the program, will graduate from Riverside High School this year.
“He was advanced in reading when he went to elementary school,” Epps boasts. “All of my grandchildren who went through Head Start have been successful and are making good grades.”
As its 50th birthday approaches, OBT’s Head Start programs are also making high marks.
Recently, the program met a long-time goal of having all five Head Start centers receive the five-star rating from North Carolina Rated License Assessment Project, the highest rating awarded child-care providers.
“That’s the first time in the history of Operation Breakthrough that all of our centers are five stars, and so we’re really proud of that,” said Head Start Director Terry David.
Head Starts are graded on such criteria as the ability to reduce teaching/student ratios and whether lead teachers have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or related field.
“Many of our lead teachers - I’d say probably 85 percent of our lead teachers, if not higher - have a bachelor’s degree or higher,” David said. “That’s something that we’ve worked really hard on, just making sure we’re meeting or exceeding that requirement.”
Currently, the agency serves 437 children at five locations and employees about 80 people.
It has Head Start centers downtown on West Seminary Street, Liberty Street, Oxford Manor, McDougald Terrace and Lyon Park.
David said most classes have a student/teacher ratio of 17 to 1, which the experts often cite as an ideal classroom size to maximize education.
Many of the children who complete Head Start at one of the Operation Breakthrough’s centers go on to become kindergartners in the Durham Public Schools.
David said children leaving Head Start programs should know their alphabet, numbers, colors and how to read simple sentences.
He said they also learn important social skills that they’ll need to be successful after they move on.
Stacey Wilson-Norman, deputy superintendent for academics at DPS, said the school district sets its own baseline for determining kindergarten readiness, and that Head Start children are on par with those enrolled in DPS’ Pre-K programs.
“The readiness of students reporting to us who came from Head Start is similar to that of those who come from DPS Pre-K programs,” Wilson-Norman said.
Besides Head Start programs, OBT runs a job-training program and a weatherization program.
James Tabron, who became executive director of the agency last summer, said achieving five-stars at each center is a remarkable achievement.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Tabron, a former Durham Housing Authority director. “One of the things that we recognize is that even though Operation Breakthrough has been here serving this community for 50 years, this year, so many of our programs tend to fall into the category of being one of Durham’s best kept secrets.”
Tabron became director of the agency amid an investigation by the state Office of Economic Opportunity into numerous rules and policy violations that took place over a two-year period before his arrival.
The agency instituted numerous checks and balances to address shortcomings found during a routine compliance visit by state officials.
Those shortcomings included missing personnel records, improper board procedures, unverified client-eligibility records and services provided to ineligible clients.
Delores Williams’ daughter, Delarae, 5, is enrolled in the Head Start program on West Seminary Street.
She follows in the footsteps of her brother Yusef, 11, who attended the Head Start program in McDougald Terrace.
“It’s a very good program, and I love it,” said Williams, who often volunteers at the center. “She loves learning and they’re teaching her a lot of stuff.”
It’s common for women like Williams to volunteer at the center and become actively involved in other capacities, but the same is not true for the men in the children’s lives.
The agency is now actively trying to reach more men – dads, granddads, uncles, big brothers – to encourage them to become active participants in the education and lives of the children.
Part of the wall at the center on West Seminary Street is filled with photos of men and the children in their lives, an attempt to make the men feel more welcome.
“We’re trying to encourage men to become more involved,” David said. “It’s amazing to see the children go up to that board and point to those pictures.”