MERCED -- For early childhood education programs, the past few years have been very difficult, according to Gaye Riggs, who is retiring at the end of the month as the assistant superintendent of the county early education department.
Riggs, 63, is being replaced by Christie Hendricks. Both women have high praise for each other and say the leadership transition of the department with about 275 employees will be seamless.
"This department wouldn't even exist without her," Hendricks said of Riggs. "She brought all the programs together. I'm really excited. I have big shoes to fill, figuratively speaking. Gaye's done an incredible job placing this department in the spotlight in the state of California. She's built a great program."
Riggs said early education is not a priority of Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, but those in the field have rallied support and done a great job of advocating for themselves.
She has worked for the Merced County Office of Education since 1975 and has been one of six assistant superintendents.
"It will be a long time before we see investments in early education," Riggs said. "But I think the assault, huge reductions of the last four years, is over. We have to invest in our youngest children."
Big shoes to fill
Hendricks, 52, has worked for the Office of Education since 1997. She has been a speech-language pathologist and also worked in a similar capacity for the Livingston Union School District. Her appointment as assistant superintendent was effective Aug. 1. Hendricks will earn $103,062 this year.
"Gaye Riggs has accomplished a tremendous amount of work and has championed early education throughout the county and state," said Steve Gomes, county superintendent of schools.
"Gaye leaves big shoes to fill, and I am very confident Christie Hendricks is up for the task ahead of her. MCOE will miss Gaye's commitment to helping our youngest students get a high quality early education, and we look forward to Christie at the helm of the department," Gomes said.
Riggs said if our youngest children are in quality early education programs they are more likely to graduate from high school, read by the third grade and less likely to be in social welfare systems.
"It takes new energy and ideas," Riggs said. "It's been fun; I feel like I've done my job. Christie's fully prepared, and she's perfect."
Riggs has joined the board of Court Appointed Special Advocates and will continue working with the Children's Movement of Merced, a year-old grassroots effort trying to enlist the support of family-friendly businesses. The group now has 111 businesses and hopes to have 500 by next June.
Hendricks said Riggs started the Children's Roundtable in the early 1990s; that effort offers a single point of entry for children from birth to 3 years of age who have a potential disability.
Before coming to Merced, Riggs worked a year as a school psychologist for the Los Alamitos School District.
She worked on and off for the Office of Education, taking time off to raise her three children and returning full-time 12 years ago. She has worked in three of the county's six departments: instructional services, special education and children's programs.
"Christie and I worked together for eight years," Riggs said. "It's terrific."
Hendricks graduated from Merced College in 1992 with an associate of arts degree in liberal studies, followed in 1994 by a bachelor's degree in communicative sciences and disorders from California State University, Fresno. She received her master's degree in 1996 from CSUF.
She said she chose her career path because she has an interest in improving the lives of young children.
In retirement, Riggs hopes to visit her children and do some consulting, as well as continue to advocate for early education in California.
"This a good time to give other people a chance for leadership opportunities," Riggs said. "I feel things are in good shape."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.
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