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From fields to classroom, mother is a model

A preschool teacher with Head Start will be honored for her achievements, but she says her greatest reward is her daughter's admiration.

By MICHELE MILLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000


DADE CITY -- Over the past few years, Herminia Renteria has acquired a cherished collection of Mother's Day gifts. A construction-paper flower, a poster board picture frame and a place mat bearing a photograph of her one and only child, Casandra, are a few of the hand-made treasures she holds dear.

But the most precious gift 6-year-old Casandra has bestowed upon her mother is to say that she when she grows up, she wants to be a teacher, "just like my mom."

Acquiring her Child Development Association accreditation and becoming a preschool teacher in the Head Start Program at Cox Elementary has earned Renteria kudos from others; she is one of 32 moms in Pasco County who will be honored Friday by the Head Start prekindergarten program for their educational achievements. Yet her greatest feat, Renteria said, is becoming a successful role model for her daughter.

It is mother's instinct, she said, "to want life to be better for your child than it was for you."

Providing food and clothing and a roof overhead is all part of that, but setting an example of how to succeed is one of the best things a mother can do. That hasn't always been easy for Renteria, who, as one of five children of migrant farm workers, spent much of her youth harvesting -- tobacco in North Carolina, apples in West Virginia, tomatoes and strawberries in Florida. "We were always moving from house to house, from school to school," she said.

Although education was important to her parents -- "My brother and I were one of the few (migrant children) that went to school every day," she said -- Renteria said she never thought much about continuing her education after being the first in her family to graduate from high school.

She worked for a time for the Department of Agriculture and then for Lykes Pasco, where she met her husband of nine years, Jesus.

Soon after being laid off at Lykes, she heard of an opening at Cox Elementary School for a para-professional in Head Start, an early intervention program for low-income families. Casandra was 7 months old when her mother took the position. A few years later, Renteria and her husband enrolled their daughter in the program, which offers a variety of comprehensive services to families.

One of the main components of Head Start is to help families work toward self-sufficiency, said Maria Crosby, director of Pasco's Head Start preschool program.

"The staff meets with families early on to help them set goals, whether it's in education or a career, and the federal funds allow us to provide financial assistance to meet those goals -- tuition, books, fees," Crosby said.

Quite a few parents have taken advantage of those opportunities. Many who start out as volunteers wind up working as paraprofessionals or teachers in the Head Start program, which is in 22 Pasco County elementary schools.

An example is Brenda Roberts, "one of our stars of the Head Start Program," Crosby said. A mother and grandmother who recently acquired her bachelor's degree in early education from Nova University, Roberts now is planning to pursue a master's degree. Roberts works as a preschool teacher at Cox. During the next school year she will be a team leader over the program, which serves 112 students.

Roberts said she is proud of how far she has come through the Head Start program and is eager to encourage other parents who make their way into the classroom.

"Years ago I would have never thought I would have come this far. I'm 42 years old and getting my degree," Roberts said. "Now I'm encouraging other parents to continue their education.

"Some parents have gone into nursing or taken on a trade, gotten their GED or gone on to college. It makes the moms feel good. They say, "I want this for my children.' Then the children say, "If my mom can do it, so can I.' "

Renteria is happy to hear those same words from her daughter, who spends many after-school hours in her room playing school. Earning her accreditation and working as a teacher in a program that benefits migrant families is just the first step, Renteria said.

"I just registered at PHCC (Pasco-Hernando Community college) to go back to school. I want to get my A.A. and then go for my bachelor's in early childhood intervention," she said. "I want to do it for my daughter. I want to be a model for my daughter so when I tell her she must go to college she doesn't say, "How come I have to go to college when you never went?' "

"I feel like I'm an inspiration for her. I feel like if I can be a better person, she can, too," Renteria said. "Sometimes she says, "I can't do this or I can't do that' and I always tell her, "Yes, you can.' "


-- Applications now are being accepted for the Head Start prekindergarten program. For an appointment in central Pasco, call 794-2730; in west Pasco, 774-2730; in east Pasco, 524-2730.

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