Women of Impact 2018

Janis Santos

Executive Director, HCS Head Start Inc.

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

She’s Spent Her Career Giving Children a Solid Head Start

It’s called the Goodhue House — because it was built in the early 1890s by local contractor Charles Goodhue as his primary residence — but most know it as the Putnam mansion, the home to Springfield Mayor Roger Putnam until the 1950s.

Whatever name it goes by, the property at the corner of Central Street and Madison Avenue was and is one of the largest private residences ever built in Springfield.

Today, it’s the headquarters building for HCS Head Start Inc., and Janis Santos, executive director of that agency for nearly 40 years, often has to pinch herself to make sure this is really home. That’s because her involvement with Head Start goes back almost to the very beginning, when the organization was created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s multi-faceted War on Poverty.

In those early days, the digs were much, much different.

“We were a federal agency, and back then, you couldn’t use federal funds to pay rent,” she explained. “So we had to find space that was given in-kind or free, so we were in places like church basements. When I started a Head Start in my town of Ludlow in 1973, we were in the basement of the Ludlow Boys & Girls Club.”

But as she talked with BusinessWest and later offered a tour of the Goodhue House, pointing out such things as the former master bedroom (now the conference room), what once were servants’ quarters, and a large room that once housed a music conservatory, Santos said that much more has changed over the past four decades or so than the accommodations.

And she has been at the forefront of, and a catalyst for, practically all of it, becoming what those who have worked with her over the years — directly, as an employee, or indirectly, as a state legislator or municipal official in one of the communities served by HCS Head Start — call a true pioneer in the field of early childhood education.

“Janis has led the charge, ensuring that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to high-quality early learning, and has helped to legitimize and professionalize the field,” said Susan Gosselin, chair of the HCS Head Start board of directors, who began her teaching career at that aforementioned facility in Ludlow; Santos was her supervisor. “She began teaching at a time when the greater public viewed her career as babysitting, and today early education is a highly valued profession, and there is a better understanding of brain development and the importance of the early years.

“Her unwavering advocacy over the past four decades at the local, state, and national levels has helped bring attention to this issue,” Gosselin went on, “and has helped change the perception of early childhood education.”

These days, Santos admits she’s frequently asked about retirement and whether she’s ready for it, and noted that her answer is always a quick and firm ‘no.’ If anything, she’s probably picking up the pace a little (if that’s possible) and doing more of that aforementioned pinching.

“Janis has led the charge, ensuring that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to high-quality early learning, and has helped to legitimize and professionalize the field.”

Indeed, recent initiatives, ones that make the Goodhue House rather old news, include a partnership with MGM Springfield that culminated in the opening this fall of the $4 million MGM Head Start Child and Family Center on Union Street. And in September, she presided over the groundbreaking ceremonies for an ambitious, state-of-the-art Educare School for preschool-aged children, a $14 million facility slated to open next year.

Meanwhile, she’s working on the front lines of efforts to improve access to preschool and increase the salaries for preschool educators, necessary steps, she said, toward better preparing children for school — and all that will follow (more on that later).

Santos, who said she had a few very important mentors while she was young, including an English teacher who insisted on calling students by their last names — hers was Johnston, and her teacher called it out several times a day as she implored her charge to work harder and reach higher — now counts mentoring as a large part of her job description, especially when it comes to employees.

This role comes naturally because, in most all respects, she has been where they are — as a young early-education teacher struggling to do that work while raising children at home — and is now (serving as an innovative, entrepreneurial administrator) where they want to be.

When asked about what she tells those she manages and mentors, she summed it up quickly and effectively.

“I tell them that change is important — if we don’t change, we won’t succeed,” she explained. “When there are new ways of doing things, new curriculum, always be thinking outside the box.

“I also tell them, when you look at a child, look at that child individually; they’re not like the child sitting next to them,” she went on. “Find their strengths and what their needs are; every child, every person is different.”

Janis Santos has always followed her own advice, and that’s why, for a half-century now, she’s been a true Woman of Impact.

New School of Thought

Santos calls it “management by walking about.”

That’s been her style throughout her career, and while those four words sum it up pretty well, we’ll let her elaborate.

“If you want your staff to trust you, you’ve got to be out there with them,” she explained, referring to the classroom, but also every office carved out of the many unique spaces at the Goodhue House. “I read … I love to read to kids in the classroom, or I might sit and have lunch with them. I also like to bring in area mayors and other officials to read; we’re a community program, and I want people to know what we do.”

And while she’s an administrator now and has been for decades, she says that, in her heart, she will always be a teacher and takes on that role in many different ways now, inside, but mostly outside, the classroom.

Janis Santos likes to say she “manages by walking around,” which includes regular sessions where she reads to children.

Janis Santos likes to say she “manages by walking around,” which includes regular sessions where she reads to children.

This has been her MO since she started with Head Start back in 1973, managing a small facility in Ludlow that, as she noted, was located in the basement of the Boys Club. In 1979, she was hired as executive director of Holyoke-Chicopee Head Start, and has presided over profound growth; indeed, the agency now has 17 sites and provides early education to more than 1,000 children, making it the second-largest Head Start in the Commonwealth.

Holyoke-Chicopee Head Start expanded into Springfield in 1996 when, after the agency that was running the Head Start in that city lost its federal funding because it wasn’t complying with regulations, it successfully bid for that license. And with that contract came a directive to find better space, she recalled, adding that a Realtor eventually brought her to the Goodhue House for a look.

Actually, Santos was one of the Head Start leaders who pushed legislators to change the laws on the books and thus enable the agency’s facilities to move out of church basements, and that’s just one example of her leadership efforts within the organization.

Indeed, she has served as chairperson of both the Massachusetts Head Start Assoc. and the New England Head Start Assoc., and was a member of the National Advisory Panel for the Head Start 2010 Project in Washington, D.C. in 1999. She also served as vice chair of the National Head Start Assoc. board from 2007 to 2014.

As she talked with BusinessWest about the organization, where it’s been, where it is today, and where it hopes to go in the future, Santos relayed some of the thoughts on those very subjects that she had left with the Rotary Club of East Longmeadow a few days earlier, a talk she gives to a number of groups over the course of a year.

During that quick speech, as she called it, she described Head Start as a holistic agency, one that focuses on children, obviously, but also parents, and therefore families.

Supporting just the children but not the others is unproductive, she said, adding that, overall, Head Start emphasizes everything from the health and nutrition of all members of a family to helping parents attain their GEDs so they can join the workforce.

“I told members of that Rotary Club that there’s a perception out there that low-income parents don’t want to work — they want to stay home and collect welfare, that sort of thing,” she said. “In Head Start, we know that’s not exactly true. We have many young parents … many of them have dropped out of school; we help them get their GED.

“I tell them my story,” she went on, referring to those young parents. “I was a teen parent, I went to college at night, I had three children at home. I tell them that they, too, can succeed. They can do as I did — they just need someone to believe in them and be there for them and mentor them.”

Class Act

Over the years, Santos has been that someone to believe in others and to mentor them, especially staff members at Head Start.

They are the lifeblood of the organization, she said, adding that, overall, while she’s seen a great deal of progress at Head Start and the larger early-education realm during her career, there is still a great deal of work to do in terms of making this field attractive to young people, especially men.

“Historically, this has been a field dominated by women, in large part because of the low wages paid,” she said, adding that men are needed because so many young children don’t have a father figure in their lives.

“Finding male teachers is very hard,” she explained, adding that retaining them is equally challenging. She related the story of one male teacher who resigned just a few days earlier; he loved what he did but couldn’t afford to keep on doing it, said Santos, adding that he left to become an apprentice with what she described as a sprinkler company.

“My heart was broken,” she said, adding that the young man wrote her a beautiful letter explaining his course of action and the reasons for it. “How sad is that? His heart is in early childhood teaching, but he just can’t afford to stay in this field.”

That story, and many others like it, make it clear that, while much progress has been made since Head Start was created, there is still a long way to go. In short, while many people no longer regard early childhood education as babysitting, people in the field are still paid as if they were babysitters.

“How can we get that perception to go away that these teachers don’t work hard?” she asked rhetorically. “We have children that have challenging behaviors, we have children with serious health problems; these early years are critical, and they are challenging. Taking care of one preschooler is a big job — when you have 20 of them in a classroom and there’s one other teacher, it’s a very big job.”

Suffice it to say that Santos is fighting hard to bring salary levels higher, and she will continue that fight. She told BusinessWest that legislators have passed several modest increases recently and remain champions of early education, but continued improvement is still the top priority within this industry.

“Her unwavering advocacy over the past four decades at the local, state, and national levels has helped bring attention to this issue and has helped change the perception of early childhood education.”

And while she said there have been many achievements of note since the early ’70s — for her and the early-education community — she’s always focused on the future, not the past.

And the future is represented in those two new projects in Springfield — the MGM Head Start Child & Family Center and the Educare school, both of which help show how far early education has come since it was still considered babysitting and classrooms were carved out of church basements.

View to the Future

While offering that tour of the Goodhue House, Santos made a number of stops — the second-floor porch with a commanding view of the city, the sitting room shaped like the bow of a ship (Mayor Putnam was in the Coast Guard), the elaborate front door, the grand staircase, and much more.

Yes, Head Start has come a long way since it was occupying donated space in church basements — in ways far beyond the mailing address of its facilities.

Janis Santos has been instrumental in achieving all of that, and while she’s proud of what’s been accomplished, she’s always looking toward what’s coming around the next bend, at what challenges remain to be addressed, at what new trails can be blazed.

That’s what true pioneers — and Women of Impact — do, and she has certainly set a high standard for others to follow.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]