Rising Star in Denver

Cecilia Garcia
October 6, 2000

Every day, in communities across the country, the struggle to provide a safe, nurturing learning environment for children goes on, sometimes in the face of great odds. Over a decade ago, when a northeast Denver neighborhood found itself facing an increase in gang-related problems, including drug trafficking and gun violence, community members pulled together to stop the slide. Now, a former crack house is home to the Family Star Community Center, and local parents and teachers can celebrate its success.

It was the location of the crack house, right across the street from a Montessori magnet school in the mostly Latino neighborhood, that energized the community to act in the late 1980s. The school attracted a diverse group of students from across the city, as well as local Latino children. Lereen Castellano was a parent of a student at the magnet school at the time. She credits Dr. Martha M. Urioste, the principal, with organizing the parents to fight against this situation. "There was a crack house across from my baby's school," said Castellano. "I had to do something about that."

Urioste and Castellano became part of an ad hoc organization of parents and school representatives that also mobilized community activists and political leaders. They got the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to buy the house back from someone Castellanos described as a "slum landlord." Then, with a generous donation from a prestigious Denver law firm, the community group bought the building from HUD and shut down the illegal drug activities.

Rebuilding the Community from Within
Suddenly, they had a vacant house on their hands. So the group decided to uncover a community need that could be met by creative use of the building. Castellanos described their next move as a "vision quest" to inform them of the best possible use for the former crack house. What the group discovered is that the Latino parents of neighborhood children who attended the magnet school wanted a better grounding for their children. The Latino parents felt their kids were entering school at a disadvantage compared to their classmates from more affluent areas.

"Children were entering first grade with a working vocabulary of some 13,000 words," according to Castellanos. "Our kids were coming with working vocabularies of only 3,000, so we wanted to create opportunities that would level the playing field."

The decision was made to create an infant/toddler care center based on the Montessori method, emphasizing language development. Community involvement was a value that the group wanted to embed in the new childcare center, so a commitment was made to draw the center's staff from the community itself. Four community residents, including Castellanos, completed a rigorous training, and Family Star opened its doors in 1991. Castellanos is now its executive director.

Family Star experienced many of the frustrations typically faced by small and under-funded organizations and businesses during their formative years. Family Star turned a major corner in 1995 when it became one of the first programs funded under Early Head Start.

Building on the success of Head Start, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was able to expand the benefits of early childhood development to low-income families with children under the age of three when the Head Start Act Amendments of 1994 were signed into law. This established the Early Head Start program, which serves approximately 40,000 children nationwide.

The grant from Early Head Start allowed Family Star to build another center in Northwest Denver. That center serves 75 families today in a dual language model and is participating a research project that ultimately will help set national policy to assist children from low-income families. Family Star is one of only 17 Early Head Start programs selected for this research, and is one of the few that is based in a center, rather than a school.

Family Star's ability to stay connected to the grassroots community is one of its assets, says Castellano. " We've successfully combined the best of the Montessori methods with the strengths of our Latino culture." A recent Denver Post article reported that Family Star's staff is 80 percent bilingual and that an important cultural aspect is its emphasis on the extended family. The male-involvement coordinator is a grandfather figure who helps bring fathers back into the childcare equation. The Post reported that half of the 75 Family Star families do not list a father as parent.

Castellano, her staff and their community have come a long way since they rid their neighborhood of the crack house. Last year Family Star was honored at the White House as an example of a program that works for Latino youth. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans recognized Family Star as "the only public/private collaboration in the nation, offering urban children a continuous Montessori education" from infancy through first grade.

Family Star Community Center locations:
2246 Federal Boulevard
Denver, Colorado 80211

1331 East 33rd Avenue
Denver, Colorado 80205

For more information on Early Head Start, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site.

The Administration for Children, Youth and Families is accepting applications from local public and private nonprofit and for-profit organizations interested in carrying out services under the Early Head Start program. Grants are available in 83 communities in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Deadline: November 13, 2000. For an application, call 800-351-2293.



Cecilia Garcia is the former Executive Director of Connect for Kids.