For more than 50 years, Roselva Ungar dedicated her life to early childhood education.
She spent many years as an elementary school teacher in the in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in addition to her work with Head Start, a federally-funded program that provides comprehensive early childhood education and services to low-income children and their families.
“When I first started teaching back in the 50s I started in elementary school but the significant part, the 50 years, were working in one way or another with Head Start,” Ungar said.
During that time, she helped organize a foundation to sponsor the Head Start program called the Foundation for Early Childhood Education where she worked as a teacher, union organizer, manager and board member.
“The foundation was the model of quality early childhood education and parent involvement,” Ungar said. “Whether I was a union person or a management person or a teacher, my primary concern was early childhood education and stabilizing a program I thought was very worthwhile and very important.”
And shortly after her 90th birthday and her retirement from the Foundation’s Board, she was honored by former Los Angeles County Fifth District Supervisor Michael Antonovich for her years of service to not only young students, but also to one of Head Start’s essential organizations.
Life as an Educator
When Ungar graduated from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a history degree and teaching credential, she did not think that her career would be centered on early childhood education.
“I had no idea that I would be teaching young children, I thought I would teach secondary school,” she said. “I had not thought of young children, but then I had babies of my own and saw how important those early years were.”
She spent nine years working as an LAUSD elementary school teacher in Hollywood and Boyle Heights before transitioning to teaching and advocacy work with Head Start.
In 1983, Ungar returned to the LAUSD classroom where she organized the first preschool program and School Readiness Language Development Program (SRLDP) in Lincoln Heights and acted as an elementary school teacher until her retirement in 2001.
“Early childhood education became my thing and expertise and it’s all because of my three kids,” Ungar said.
And this expertise began when Ungar and her three children participated in the city’s cooperative nursery programs following World War II (WWII).
Cooperative Nursery Programs
Cooperative nursery programs, or parent participation nursery schools, originated shortly after WWII during the “baby boom.”
“There was this period in the 50s when there were lots of different play groups, which then organized themselves so there would be consistency in periods of times the teachers were there,” Ungar said.
The groups, organized by families with young children, met at parks throughout Southern California where teachers would regularly educate children and parents would volunteer on a rotational basis.
In 1949, teachers from the cooperative nursery program began discussing ways to organize and improve their standards.
“They wanted to have some communication and better their professional standards so they communicated with UCLA and set up UCLA’s first program in early childhood education,” Ungar said.
In 1958, Ungar organized her own parent cooperative nursery school in Hollywood for families and her own children to attend.
When the Head Start program began in 1965, a group of teacher directors from cooperative nursery schools established their own non-profit organization, the Foundation of Early Childhood Education.
Head Start and Foundation
In February 1966, Ungar helped the group of unionized teachers organize the Foundation for Early Childhood Education in Los Angeles where she joined the union and acted as a foundation Head Start State Preschool teacher for nine years.
“I just fell in love,” Ungar said. “I was so happy that there was money for these programs and that other children could have the same opportunities as my own children did.”
After several years of teaching, Ungar transitioned to a union organizer position for the Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers in order to “stabilize the Head Start program and support employees.”
In this position, she negotiated the contracts for eight Head Start agencies in Los Angeles County for 10 years.
When she returned to LAUSD in 1983, Ungar remained involved in Head Start’s organization and foundation. She joined the Foundation’s Board in 1990 where she served as president and as chair of the community advisory committee before her retirement in October 2016.
In her approximately 50 years with the Head Start program and the Foundation for Early Childhood Education, Ungar has seen the program grow and change from its pilot phase under President Lyndon B. Johnson to its established phase under President Donald J. Trump.
“Under so many different administrations they always increased Head Start budget,” Ungar said. “It has expanded over the years and is still only serving about 50 percent of the children who need it.”
Although Ungar spent her time serving in schools throughout downtown Los Angeles, she has spent the last 10 years as a resident of Santa Clarita.
Because of this, former Supervisor Antonovich awarded her with a commendation for her efforts to eliminate poverty and as an early childhood education specialist.
“I was really surprised of course because I had no idea that the county cared about what my life had been like,” Ungar said.
However, Ungar credits her fellow Foundation board members for organization the recognition and tribute for her more than 50 years of service to Head Start.
“When I retired from the board, I think it triggered their thinking they should do something to honor the service that had been so long and so dedicated to Head Start,” she said. “They were the ones that had the connections and instituted the whole thing.”
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