Mayor Sheng Thao speaks at a podium with other officials standing around her, in front of a large green RV labeled "Ready, set, go!"
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, with City Councilmembers Kevin Jenkins, Carroll Fife, and Treva Reid, and Head Start staff, speaks at the launch of a mobile Head Start classroom. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

An RV converted into a Head Start classroom will hit the road soon, providing services to families at Oakland homeless shelters.

The city of Oakland unveiled the bright green “Ready, Set, Go! Mobile Classroom” vehicle at Arroyo Viejo Park in East Oakland on Wednesday.

“We were losing people in our programs when housing became difficult,” Diveena Cooppan, Oakland Head Start program director, told The Oaklandside at the event. It’s a challenge for families to show up consistently and on time at a given center, or provide a stable location for home visits, when they’re sleeping in different places on different nights.

The mobile classroom will make regular visits to homeless shelters selected to participate in a pilot, working one-on-one with clients and holding group sessions. The city is working with Family Front Door, which serves homeless families in the region, to identify the locations.

After that, “the idea is to be able to move with a family until they’re in a stable situation and ready to be at a [Head Start] center,” Cooppan said.

The inside of an RV, with toys and pillows spread out on a green run. Cabinets are labeled with the educational supplies they contain.
About half of the RV is classroom space, while the rest contains healthcare, cooking, and computer stations. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Oakland Head Start is a federally funded education and family services program run by the city, which contributes about 20% of its funding. It serves low-income families with children ages 5 and under, along with pregnant people. 

The new vehicle is part of Head Start’s home-based program, where educators, nurses, and other staff visit families in their homes to provide child development support, social services, and meals. About one half of the RV has been turned into a classroom stocked with picture books, arts supplies, musical instruments, wooden blocks, and pillows. There are holes in the floor where tables can be stuck. 

The rest of the space includes a computer area where parents can work on resumes or housing applications, a health check station, a kitchenette, and a bathroom.

“A lot of the work we do is teaching and working with parents. Your caregiver is your first teacher,” Coopan said.

Three Head Start staff will be dedicated to the mobile program, along with a driver. The program spent $530,000 on converting the RV, and will further fund its operations and maintenance, said Cynthia Yao, Head Start manager for the local region, at Wednesday’s event. 

A crowd of families, including kids in strollers, in a park.
Families attended the mobile classroom launch at Arroyo Viejo Park on Wednesday, and picked up supplies from a resource fair. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

In 2020, First 5 Alameda County found that 93% of the need for infant and toddler licensed childcare was unmet in Oakland.

At last count in 2022, about 8% of the people staying in Oakland homeless shelters were under 18. The homeless student population at Oakland Unified schools has also exploded recently, up to 1,780 students, representing a 70% increase over the last three years. School districts use a broader definition of homelessness than other government agencies, including youth who couchsurf, live in homes without enough beds, or otherwise lack a fixed, regular place to sleep. 

“Your housing status should not determine your ability to access education,” said City Councilmember Kevin Jenkins. He was one of several city officials who spoke at Wednesday’s launch event, which doubled as a resource fair for families. 

Councilmember Treva Reid and Mayor Sheng Thao said they were “Head Start babies” themselves.

“Growing up, there was this random person who’d show up with toys and books,” Thao said, drawing laughter from the crowd. Thao, who experienced homelessness as a young mother in Oakland, said her son also attended a Head Start program.

“Just because your family is going through some housing issues, that doesn’t mean the resources should stop,” she said. “Actually, that means they need them more.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.