A Moment with Dr. Moore

October 24, 2023

Celebrating Our Unsung Heroes

Head Start has helped some public figures to get to the head of the class. Talking about their achievements is one of the ways we can mark Head Start Awareness Month this October. Head Start alums know that the program helps children become school ready and connects parents with the services they need to gain housing, employment and education. The support the families receive makes them stronger, and that builds stronger communities for us all, as Head Start alums understand. So, they have worked to sustain the Head Start program and keep it going strong.

Rep. Jahana Hayes has put a spotlight on the program since 2018 when she became the first Black woman to serve Connecticut in Congress. “Head Start was where I first developed my love of learning and heard about the concept that ‘it takes a village.’ That has been my educational philosophy,” she says based on her experience as both a Head Start student and parent. “I was a teenage mom, a high school dropout who just wanted the opportunity to go to school. I sent my children to Head Start, and it was an equalizer for me,” as she recalls. Head Start worked for Rep. Hayes, as it has for many other community members. “So, every time someone says that ‘the school should do this,’ I say, ‘No, it’s the community,’” she insists. “The entire community should be investing in children.”

That also means investing in the early childhood teachers who staff Head Start centers, as Rep. Hayes points out. “I want resources for students and resources for the people who we’re putting in front of our students. I want to make sure that anyone who stands in front of kids is treated like the professional that they are—that they’re provided with the resources and education and mentoring and background and supports that they need to engage the students. I’m unapologetic in that respect, and I will continue to be as long as I’m a member of Congress.”

Hayes is a firm Head Start champion, and the program especially needs allies like her right now. Earlier this year, the National Head Start Association reported that 19 percent of Head Start positions were vacant countrywide, leading 20 percent of all Head Start classrooms to close. And that’s a source of deep concern to Bernadine Futrell, a Head Start alum and former Head Start director, who now serves the nation as deputy assistant secretary for equity and discretionary grants and support services at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Recently, she discussed her plans for Head Start as the program rebuilds from the pandemic, and one of her main goals is to support professionals in ECE.

“We are prioritizing investing in you, our Head Start workforce,” she said. “It’s long overdue, and the pandemic has surely called us to the point where we need to do something. We have to invest in developing a pipeline of teachers. We must also honor all of you who have served and led in Head Start programs during these most difficult times. Quite simply stated, that means we’re leaning into your local expertise and inviting you to help guide and direct what’s best for your program in terms of the recovery. What do you need to reopen safely and provide services for children and families?”

One of the answers is having more qualified teachers, as Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia saw on a recent tour of Savannah’s Head Start center on May Street, near the Robert Clayton Homes where he and his 11 siblings grew up. The program currently has funding for 327 children but runs at less than half of its capacity, as Sen. Warnock learned while he talked with staff and walked by understaffed classrooms. “There’s no question that we’ve got to strengthen the workforce pipeline,” he said. “I think early childhood development is key not only for these children, but also for their families and the economy. As we try to rebuild post pandemic, we need to make sure children have a safe place where they can be educated so their parents can work.”

And Sen. Warnock strived to give Head Start families what they need by introducing the Head Start Education and Development Workforce Advance and Yield Act last month. The HEADWAY Act would address child care workforce shortages by allowing teachers to teach and earn their Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ at the same time. And Warnock has a personal stake in pushing the act into law.

“I’m a proud Head Start alum, one of only two in the United States Senate,” he explained at the recent National Head Start Conference. “I like to say that I’m a product of good public policy, thanks to programs like Head Start, because only in this country is my story of being a kid who grew up in public housing and became a U.S. senator possible”—words that have a special meaning for me.

Like Sen. Warnock, I grew up in public housing and I’ve seen what Head Start can do for families. My mother was a Head Start aid when I was a young student at the center where she worked. We walked hand in hand to the center each day, and we both benefited from the program. Head Start gave my mom the confidence and skills to become an activities director at a senior living facility. And it helped me by giving me a lifelong love of learning and books that led to my success. Over the years, I have advanced far in my ECE career, but I’ve stayed connected to the Head Start community from which I came. As a Head Start director, I heard many times from parents how important the program was for them and their children. And now, as Council CEO, my mission is to produce more of the qualified teachers our Head Start children and families need.

Helping more people to earn their CDA® is a big step toward helping the Head Start program rebuild in the wake of the pandemic. It’s also a way to invest in our teachers, as Sen. Warnock pointed out. “In a real sense, my HEADWAY Act is aimed at giving our early childhood teachers—who are unsung heroes and the backbone of our education force—a head start in their careers.” And they deserve it. Head Start teachers help low-income children succeed and even become leaders who give back.

The lawmakers I have discussed are the ones who make the news, but they have not forgotten the humble folks who helped them get where they are now. Neither have I, though it’s been quite a while since I went to Head Start in the morning with my mom. Head Start worked for my family and it works for families nationwide—mainly because of Head Start teachers. “Here’s the bottom line for me,” as Sen. Warnock said when he toured his old Head Start center and engaged with its staff. “In one of these classrooms could be your next U.S. senator from Georgia,” he pointed out. So, Head Start teachers like those Sen. Warnock met that day play a vital role in building the future. These unsung heroes deserve our praise and esteem as we celebrate Head Start Awareness Month.



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