New Jersey Department of Education

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Episode 26: Models of Service—Head Start Programs

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Head Start programs around New Jersey support thousands of pregnant women, infants, toddlers, preschool children, their families, and their communities. At the New Jersey Department of Education, we believe that early childhood is essential to the success of communities and students that they serve. As one type of early childhood education provider, Head Start programs are federally funded. The practices in these programs can inform the ways that educators, all the way through 12th grade and beyond, engage with their communities, their families, and their students. In the dialogue that I have with educational leaders in the Head Start space, you'll be able to understand not just what Head Start is, but the amazing impact that it can have on the communities that it serves. Enjoy listening to this conversation.


Bonnie: I'm Bonnie Eggenburg. I am the New Jersey Head Start Association President. On a daily basis, I provide leadership at Gateway Community Action Partnerships Early Head Start and Head Start programs. We have presence in seven counties in New Jersey: Mercer, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, Camden, Cape May, and Atlantic counties.

Ciara: My name is Ciara Haynes-Saunders. I am the Director of Program Services for Gateway Community Action Partnership. I work directly with Bonnie. She's my supervisor. So I'm over all of the centers that we provide, as far as education, mental health, disabilities, and family partnership. And I am a Head Start child. I attended this very same program that I work for.

Isaac: Yes. Uh, my name is Isaac Dorsey. I'm the Executive Director for Children's Home Society Early Head Start and Head Start program. And we provide services primarily in the Trenton area for pregnant mothers, children birth to five years old.

Ken: Just thinking big picture and thinking about our audience, you know, some folks may have never heard of Head Start. I think it would help for folks to understand just what is Head Start, right? And how do you see it fitting into the educational landscape in New Jersey?

Bonnie: So Head Start began in the 1960s. And it has expanded to Early Head Starts. So now we serve pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and preschool children from low-income families. But we don't only just serve low-income families. We can take some over-income families. And we do try to focus also on children with special needs, with disabilities, and other concerns.

And the program is comprehensive. Head Start from the very beginning has always embraced the whole family. It has welcomed in the family and made the family part of the program. And they--through Head Start children get two-thirds of their daily nutritional requirements if they're coming into a center-based program. They are getting their daily educational services that are comparable or even exceed the standards set by the state. They receive parent education materials and services. they receive support in accessing social services. They receive support and health services. We work with the family to address mental health issues. We really envelop the whole family. there is no charge for Early Head Start or Head Start services. It is something that we believe strongly really makes a difference in young children and so there is no cost.

Ciara: This is Ciara.

One thing that I always tell people about Head Start when I'm recruiting is that we provide high quality services to the entire family. We go after, you know, what we feel is best and what research says is best to provide for you and your family.

So we're not just working with your child, we're working with everyone in your house because we want to leave a lasting effect on the entire family. We want you to come back and remember what we did. We want you to take what you learned from Head Start and become an advocate for your child. We want you to go out in a community. We connect you with different resources, different community groups, so that you can sustain all of the services and all of-- the all the tools that you gather from Head Start, you will have that lasting, to always be an advocate and be the teacher to your child.

Isaac: the thing I might say, uh Ken, is this Head Start programs make a significant investment in children, and that goes without saying. And I think no matter what district our kids go into, you can almost notice one that might be--that was a Head Start child. But even more importantly, or as important to me, is that the investment we make in our parents, especially our parent leaders, is something I think the district might find ways to capitalize on. Because we--I think it's a rich resource because we do put a large investment in teaching our parents everything, from you, know how, to read budgets, how to develop policies, how to build systems, and that sort of thing. And if once they go into the district that, it's kind of lost if they don't have an opportunity to continue to use those skills in a way that might even benefit education beyond the early childhood years.

Ken: Excellent. So why Head Start? What was the impetus for you getting involved with this? And Ciara, since you mentioned and kind of alluded to that in the beginning, why don't you take this one to start out.

Ciara: Well, it was natural for me to be attracted to Head Start because that's where I came from. I remember everything about Head Start when I attended the program. I still have pictures and projects that my family saved.

Head Start really made an impact on my life. And it gave me an advanced start to my education as a child. And also, worked with my family. They helped my mother become a nurse and my father become a construction worker. So I wanted to give back what was given to me. I knew I wanted to, you know, provide some type of service.

So I graduated from Delaware State University with a bachelor's degree in Social Work and a master's degree in Social Work. I got a phone call about a position in Bridgeton to work with Head Start. I wasn't sure if that's if I really wanted to make that transition. But, you know, I thought about it some more and I said, "this is the same program that I, you know, made an impact on my life." So of course, you know, I took the position and wanted to, you know, just give back to the community.

Ken: That's great. That's great. All right, and then Isaac or Bonnie?

Isaac: So basically I grew up in the rural south, in a community that is probably still today more than 25% unemployment. And as a very young kid, I was one of the first--actually, I was the first of my siblings to graduate from high school. And during that time took some interest in grant writing as a way to try to bring resources to the community, which I know really needed it. But instead of, you know, moving in a college direction at the time, my immediate need was to help support my family in a way that I could. So I joined the military.

Later on, after realizing that the military wasn't for me, you know, I did my years and then got out, went back home and started a degree in electronics at a southern university, which is a HSBCU {historically black colleges and universities}, in the south. I did really well in that curriculum, but it just didn't resonate with me.

So I relocated to from Louisiana to New Jersey. It's where I got my undergraduate and master's degree at Rutgers. And ended up working in the Head Start program.

It was a community action agency and also a Head Start program. And I never really pursued Head Start, but it kind of... I just kind of found it and just fell in love with it.

And, incidentally, I am also a Head Start child. I was in the first class of Head Start, 1965. So I've kind of just dated myself. And I found that the Head Start approach is one that I believe has one of the most...has one of the greatest potentials for having a lasting impact in communities. And so I've just stuck with it all these years.

Ken: Thanks. Thank you so much for sharing. Bonnie?

Bonnie: So in college I also started off studying social work. However, not too far into my college career, I switched to education. And when I had an opportunity to go to work for Head Start as a teacher, I realized that it really brought together my two passions. One is working with children and two is to be able to make a true difference with the family. And in Head Start, it did. It grabbed my heart. And I've always said this to new employees, "that you give head start a try--chance, it will grab your heart and it will never let you go." And I've had a lot of staff tell me that that experience they've had over the years. Because there is an ability to make connections with parents that you don't get in most situations.

Ken: That's wonderful. And Bonnie, to your point about Head Start supporting families, and really the multifaceted approach that they take, some people may think about Head Start as a parent or guardian dropping off a student at a classroom and then picking them up at the end of the day. And it's clear that Head Start is so much more than that.

So I wanted to transition to ask you all about Head Start and how it goes beyond the amazing services that are provided at the classroom level to support families and their well-being as a whole, beyond and through the classroom.

Bonnie: Well, Ken—this is Bonnie again—I would say, from program to program it varies how we get parents involved. But we all work to get parents involved. And a variety of ways that we do that might be through training them to be volunteers in the classroom. For instance, in our program we actually pay for families/parents to earn their Child Development Associate, their CDA credential. This not only helps them with potential jobs in the future, but it also helps them to understand how their child develops and how to support that child's development.

We help parents get involved in the decision making of what happens at their center, whether it is what types of activities might be integrated into the classroom, or be involved at a higher level in our policy council. We also provide parent education opportunities and we're doing that even during this time of COVID-19 through virtual parent education opportunities.

Isaac: Yes. Also Ken, when I think about the family well-being, one of the things that the Office of Head Start requires us to do that I think is really connected to family well-being, and that is this notion of a community assessment--community needs assessment. And by that we take a look at the communities where we provide Head Start services. A deep dive look. And trying to see what are some of the challenges that our Head Start eligible families have that might adversely impact their family well-being, for example. And then annually use that information, along with parent surveys, to kind of customize, you know, the kind of supports that we provide to our program. In my program that might be different in Trenton, for families in Trenton, than it might be at Bonnie's program in South Jersey and  in other places. So I think that whole idea of focusing on that need, because that need is going to...if we can improve and serve those Head Start eligibles by supporting family well-being, that should have a rippling effect on the community as a whole, in the long term and in the short term.

Ciara: This is Ciara. To add to that, we talk about needs. One of the things that our family partnership staff does is every parent, every family that comes in for services, we complete a needs assessment. And that needs assessment, we ask the family basic questions about, you know, what do they have and they gauge to find out what do they need. So our family advocates are trained to provide services, provide resources to the families to ensure their needs are met. Because we know that if a family doesn't have their basic needs met, then that will impact the child's learning.

The staff really go over and beyond to make sure that our children and our families have adequate services. I mean, I can tell you countless of stories of how, you know, our health team worked through the pandemic to ensure that all our children, you know ,were up to date on shots, had dentals. I had my health manager, she drove to North Jersey and several doctors' appointments to ensure that one of our children who was having...he had an infection in his mouth and it was causing him not to eat and he was in pain. But she did not stop until this child got the surgery that he needed. And it was very expensive. This family did not have any insurance, but our health manager, she did not stop until this this child really got what he needed. He's doing well now. So the heart of our Head Start employees really make a difference with our families in a program.

Ken: And I think that that's so important to highlight is just the whole philosophy of Head Start is to be a support and serve the community. Right? It's beyond just children learning to read and write. It's about the whole child. And I think that that's such an important lesson for all of us to glean and to learn from.

So, as you think about Head Start and, again, some of the lessons that the folks listening can learn from it, how can head start inform the ways which educators, whether they're working with early childhood education or in older grades, how can the philosophy of Head Start inform the ways which educators work with parents and their communities, and think about engaging their parents and the community?

Isaac: I think in historic, one of the--at the core of our philosophy is that parents are their child's first and best teacher. And so what we want to do as a Head Start is encourage families/parents to play an active role in their child's learning. And we do that by providing them with tools and resources to educate them on child's developmental milestones and all those things that we think are important when it comes to education. Helping them understand the curriculum. Helping them understand how children learn through play. And I think, really, when we talk about how Head Start might inform a broader audience about, you know, working with parents, we actively try to engage our parents, and hear from them, and use ideas from them in terms of how to improve our program.

One of the things I think is important when it comes to the education, broader education as a whole, that we learn to listen more and try to find ways to solve problems that our families and our communities have. We know we have turnover in our parent population every year. So it's not one-size-fits-all. So every year we do a parent survey that asks families about what it is they're interested in learning. What it is that they--that their main needs are and issues are. And then we go out into the community and find those resources and provide them with it. And then we follow up. We try to find out, "okay, was that really what you wanted? Did that really support you in a way you felt you needed to be supported?" And I think in the long term, that's one thing that helps parents to see that you heard the, right? Because you had a survey. You deployed a survey. You provided resources based on feedback from that survey. And so, that's one way I think is a practical way.

Another practical way, which is very similar in the public school systems, they have what's called the PTO {parent teacher organization}. And I used to, as a parent, used to be involved with the PTO. But, you know, in many ways that's similar to what we would maybe consider our either center committee meetings in Head Start, or, in a sense, our policy council in Head Start. But our policy council differ from a PTO is that they make decisions related to policy, related to direction, related to leadership. They support us in their hiring and  identifying of people that they believe might be good staff for our agency. When the PTO, at least the one I was involved with, seemed more to be like a session where people go to bring complaints, or concerns, and that sort of thing. And I mean that may be a generalized way of saying it, but I think putting in a mechanism that will give parents more of a voice on how their schools operate and run might be another practical solution.

Bonnie: This is Bonnie Eggenburg. I just wanted to add to what Isaac said because I think he said it very well. But what I did want to add is that I think what happens with teachers, with educators, oftentimes is that when we work with children and families sometimes, we forget that parents really do want what's best for their children. Oftentimes parents are so busy. They have stressors in their lives. They have commitments that are pulling them in multiple directions. And it can kind of sometimes feel like parents don't care.

And so I think one of the practical suggestions is that in the relationship with a parent, with a child's family ,that a teacher or an educator always walks into that relationship with the belief that that parent cares about what happens with this child. And that once they walk into that relationship with that attitude, that they also then listen to what it is that the parent is saying. Because sometimes we can pick up a lot from what the parent is saying about what is going on with that child, or what is going on with that family that can really make a difference in how we approach supporting that child's learning. So I really think it is about:

  1. Looking at the family and understanding that they want that child to be successful; and
  2. Really tune in and listen to that family.

Ciara: Hi. This is Ciara. To add to what Bonnie's just said, one of the things that we do, our teachers complete an initial visit with our parents. And that visit is really to understand where the parent is with their child, where the child is. So the teacher is learning from the parent on what's best for their child. What, you know, what routines the child has. What expectation do you have for your children? So it really puts the ownership on the parent to convey and to communicate how they feel, and what, you know, what they want for their child. So that helps develop the relationship that can last through the year, or however long the parent is with the program.


Ken: As you engage your communities, whatever their age is, I hope that you were able to take a lot from this episode in terms of what community, parent, family, and student engagement can look like in your context.

I'd like to take all of my guests, as well as the Division of Early Childhood Education and Elizabeth Thomas for all that they did for this episode.

I'd also like to invite you to join me for the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat on March 16, 2021 at 8:30 pm. We'll be talking about this important topic then.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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