From left to right: Dolores Terrazas, Children Services Division Director at MNC; Santiago Ruiz, MNC Executive Director; and Michele Rutherford, Deputy Director of the new San Francisco Office of Early Care and Education celebrated MNC's becoming a federal Head Start grantee. Photo by Laura Wenus

After 40 years of indirect partnership with Head Start, which provides daycare and nutrition services for children of underprivileged families, the Mission Neighborhood Centers, Inc. (MNC) announced Wednesday that it is now a direct grantee of the federal program and will expand its Head Start program to children under four-years-old.

As of 2010, MNC operated 10 Head Start centers throughout the city, serving 368 children. In the new program, which includes what is known as Early Head Start, 48 children as young as infants will be cared for. Fourteen spaces will open up in Bayview, with the remaining 34 spaces in facilities throughout the city. Services for preschool-aged children and one infant toddler site are expected to become available mid-August, and enrollment is already underway. The rollout of the remainder of the programs is still being discussed with the regional Head Start office. MNC is adding an additional site on Alemany Boulevard. The expansion care comes with a funding promise of $4.5 million yearly for the next five years, compared to previous funding levels of just over $3 million, according to a 2013 audit.

MNC is particularly renowned for its dual language program.

“What’s good for bilingual children is good for all children,” said Dolores Terrazas, who directs the Children Services division at the center.

MNC Executive Director Santiago Ruiz said that as a direct grantee, MNC will never again need to work through middlemen to receive funds. Previously, said, the brokers that negotiated funding grants for the nonprofit’s programs might unilaterally reject their requests, a decision that was non-negotiable. Now the center appeals directly to the federal agency that holds the money.

“It feels like we have been emancipated,” Ruiz said.

But that freedom also means that MNC is directly accountable to the federal government for its finances and must meet an even stricter standard of performance.

“I come bearing gifts of 2,000 regulations,” joked Pamm Shaw, president of the statewide Head Start Association, as she congratulated the neighborhood center staff.

Those additional regulations mean that the thorough assessments that MNC already makes of its programs now have to be presentable directly to the federal government, and that the center is now responsible for creating a citywide health advisory committee.

Parents whose children attend Head Start programs at the center are now part of a council advising the center. And MNC will have to begin establishing close relationships with Head Start officials.

The additional responsibility comes hand in hand with an expansion of services to Mission residents with younger children.

Lemonia Thomas is thrilled with the change she has seen in her four-year-old daughter after enrolling her in the program. Thomas says she once tried so hard to protect her child from the street that she worries she made her shy. Now, her daughter is much more vibrant and enthusiastic.

“To see her come home every day from speaking a second language is amazing,” Thomas said, describing how her daughter returns from the program to teach her family Spanish.

“It’s a defining moment for the MNC,” said board member Beverly Hayon. “We have been here for 55 years, and we hope to be here for another 55.

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