By Paul Feinberg
Ron Herndon has lived a life of service to others.
Since 1975, he has served as director of the Albina Head Start Program in Portland, Oregon. While working for the welfare of hundreds of families in the Rose City, he also found the time to spend two decades (1993–2013) as chairman of the board of the National Head Start Association. His community activism was not limited to his work with Head Start; he also organized the Portland chapter of the Black United Front, a civil rights organization that fought for better educational opportunities for black children in Oregon.
Herndon’s accomplishments over the years are myriad. For example, he created a program that both addressed his need for more substitute teachers for his Head Start classrooms and provided much-needed jobs for parents of Head Start children.
“We’re very proud of the program that we created for parents interested in becoming Head Start teacher assistants,” says Herndon. ”We have a volunteer training program for these parents. It’s over a hundred hours, in which we go through everything teachers need to know in the classroom: curriculum, first aid, child behavior and expectations. You name it, we go through it.”
Herndon and his Head Start colleagues in Portland make it a practice to hire substitute teachers from this pool of volunteers. “Once you become a teacher assistant, we will pay for you to go to college, get your A.A., and were going to do the same thing for the B.A.,” he says.
“I know it has a tremendous economic impact on these families,” says Herndon. “Also, these are women and men who have children. When they come on board with us, they have excellent health care (benefits). Also, our teaching assistants are among the highest paid, other than a union shop like a school district or community college. So, (these positions) have an immediate impact on the economy of the households.”
The effect on families goes beyond mere economics. “Children view (their parents) in a different way,” says Herndon. The program has proven nothing short of life-changing for many of the families.” We have people who come to (our program) from Ethiopia, Somalia, Mexico, Guatemala and Russia,” he says. “So (we) see folks who have come here and start to see (teaching) as a possible profession, and they now have a career ladder in front of them as well as the resources and the ability to take better care of their families.”
Head Start’s mission is to provide opportunities for children by creating a wide range of experiences for the development of the whole child and their families. Herndon recognized that there are benefits to children being bilingual. With that in mind, he introduced a Mandarin language immersion program at Albina Head Start. He and his staff educated parents about the importance of their children learning a second language, the opportunities their children would gain, as well as the long-term advantages of bilingualism for brain development.
Herndon and company introduced Mandarin curriculum in their preschool Head Start classrooms, then sought ways for the kids to continue their Mandarin lessons in kindergarten. Because of the success Albina had with its language program, the Portland Public Schools made a commitment to continue Mandarin lessons into kindergarten and first grade at nearby schools.
A modest man, Herndon prefers to share the credit for these triumphs with those who have helped him along the way. This includes the UCLA/Johnson & Johnson Head Start Management Fellows Program that he participated in as part of the inaugural class in 1991.
The UCLA/J&J Head Start program, conducted by the Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, has provided Head Start administrators a unique opportunity: the chance to participate in a two-week intensive management training session, held annually at UCLA Anderson School of Management and taught by UCLA Anderson faculty. Today, participants are selected through an application process and each class cohort represents a cross-section of Head Start executive directors, directors and managers from programs across the United States.
The UCLA/J&J Fellows program aims to build executive and entrepreneurial management skills to Head Start administrators whose training is typically in education or related fields. The program is designed from a strategic planning perspective and includes materials from human resource management, organization design and development, finance, and operations and marketing. Held annually on the UCLA Anderson campus, the curriculum focuses on applying course concepts to relevant Head Start needs and interests brought to the fore by the participants.
Today, Herndon remains an active member of the Fellows community and serves on its 12-member advisory board. He recalls vividly the impact the program has had on his career and, as a result, on the communities he’s dedicated to serving.
“The first thing that struck me about the program was the quality of the professors,” says Herndon. “They were wonderful and brought to the class a mix of academics and practical experience.” The first tangible effect the program had on Herndon came through an introduction to computers.
“I didn’t have any experience with computers at the time,” he says. “I was a Luddite. But after seeing how people were using computers at UCLA, I wanted everyone in our (Head Start) administration to have a computer, and I wanted a computer in every class, for children, parents and staff.”
That exposure to technology led to another community victory. Through the Black United Front, Herndon convinced Oregon-based Nike to open the company’s first-ever factory outlet store and he convinced them to open it in Portland. He would develop a relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight and in 1998, Nike launched Start Line, an educational outreach program designed to provide computers, software and staff training in selected Head Start centers in Oregon, Washington and California for the benefit of children and their parents.
Start Line was originally funded in part through a $2.6 million grant from Knight and Nike. The program launched at a ceremony in Los Angeles and was attended by UCLA Anderson’s Senior Associate Dean Al Osborne, the UCLA/J&J Fellows founder and executive director, and NFL star Deion Sanders, who was a Head Start participant as a child.
Herndon credits the skills he honed in the UCLA/J&J Fellows program for successes like Start Line and his ability to grow services for Head Start in the Portland area from 300 to more than 1,000 children.
“Through this training, I was exposed to strategic planning, which I had never done before,” Herndon says. “These things never would have happened without the things I learned in the program and my exposure to computers at UCLA.
“I’ve always felt that the Fellows Program has not gotten the national attention that it deserves,” he says. “The program has made more of a positive impact than any other. If you did the cost-benefit analysis of the Fellows Program,” Herndon says, “you’d find billions of dollars of impact in innovation and services. That’s why I continue to recommend people into the program.”