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Voices of Head Start

02 Nov 2022 by Isabella Henriksson

Because October is Head Start Awareness Month, Impacting the Classroom is celebrating with a closer look at Head Start, the federal government’s program to support student readiness and child development. Today’s guests are Christa Wesley, a Head Start Director at Cheaha Head Start in Alabama, and Marcia Flores, the Vice President of Chicanos por la Causa in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. 

Listen to the episode to learn what the critical areas for families are that Marcia and Christa see working in Head Start, how each of them reached their current positions, what their different communities look and how Head Start can serve them. 

Listen now or read the transcript below!

Marnetta: Welcome back listeners. This is Impacting the Classroom, the podcast that finds out the policies, research, and challenges facing the early childhood system. I’m your host, Marnetta Larrimer. 

Here we are, in October, which is Head Start Awareness Month. To celebrate, we’re taking a closer look at Head Start, the federal government’s program to support student readiness and child development, particularly for children who may have risk factors and unique experiences that create challenges to their development and learning. 

So, What’s Impacting the Classroom? With me today are Christa Wesley, a Head Start Director at Cheaha Head Start in Alabama. Hello, Christa.

Christa: Hello there.

Marnetta: And Marcia Flores, the Vice President of Chicanos por la Causa in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Welcome Marcia.

Marcia: Thank you for having me.

Marnetta: I’m so happy you guys were able to join us. I would first like to start with can you tell us a little bit about your work, whether in Cheaha or in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico. Tell us a little bit about what you all do. 

Christa: I’ll start. I work for the Head Start Program. We serve Head Start and Early Head Start, which is from birth to six, children six weeks to five, and pregnant women. I think that most certainly the early education component of that is really important for all the reasons that you named, but I think a lot of times, the Head Start Program becomes the focus and people don’t realize that all of the same things that we do for our children, we do for our family. We have a lot of support for our families. We offer go-setting and educational opportunities, career opportunities. That’s always a really important piece to me that I bring in the children and the families. 

Marnetta: Thank you so much. Ms. Marcia?

Marcia: For our program here in Arizona, one of our biggest populations that we service is a unique population. It’s our migrant and seasonal families in Arizona. We provide services to them throughout the State of Arizona. Due to our crops throughout the state, it allows us to provide those services to our migrant families that move within the state and without the state, outside of the state as well. 

As Christa mentioned, we provide that holistic service to not only to our children, but to our families as well. 

Marnetta: Thank you so much. I don’t want to assume your journey to Head Start. What brought you to Head Start? What was the draw to Head Start programs? What brought you in?

Christa: Honestly, for me, I started working for Head Start two weeks before my 19th birthday. The center director at one of the centers knew my family and she recruited me. I had no desire to work with Head Start. I didn’t even really know what it was. But it was just being honest at the time a job, and when you get there, you learn about it, and you learn everything it does, so many people have the outlook that it is just day care or it’s just babysitting children. But when you get there and you learn how comprehensive it is in all the critical areas it addresses for the children and families, it didn’t take me long to know that this is where I belonged and this is where I would be. 

Like I said, I’ve been there September the 2nd, it was 29 years. I tell everybody, Head Start it’s either you love it or you hate it. There’s no in-between. If you love it, you stay forever. Somebody asked me the other day, where do you see yourself in five years? I was like, still right here. This is the home that I’ve built. This is the community. This is the family. That’s how I ended up with Head Start. 

Marnetta: That was a beautiful story. A lot of passion in that statement. 

Christa: Thank you

Marnetta: Marcia?

Marcia: My journey began very similar to Christa’s. I wanted to serve my community. I wanted to have an impact in people’s lives. I wanted to help them. Also, a friend recommended me to Head Start and also said, hey, they’re hiring in Head Start and I’m like, what is Head Start? I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this. 

Once I was in, like Christa said, you'll either love it and it’s for you and you're a lifer, I want to say, in one way or another because I’ve been here for 16 years. I just fell in love with it. 

People that have also come across Head Start and have moved away from Head Start, they still are collaborating with us. That’s a huge testament about our program.

Marnetta: Absolutely. Ms. Christa, you mentioned critical areas for children and families. For those who are not familiar with Head Start—because that’s what this is about, opening some doors and providing some information for people who may not understand just the value of this program—what are some of those areas?

Christa: First, I would have to say the health aspect of it. So many of our families take children to the doctor when they’re sick. They don’t understand the importance of preventative care and the dental. Really, in our culture of families, that’s just not one of the things that seems to be important until we teach them. How dental infections and stuff like that affects other areas. I would definitely say the health aspect is very critical. 

The nutritional aspect is very critical because we do nutrition classes and do the heights and weights and the children that are obese are recommended to weight management programs. We work with the families on diets and smart snacks and stuff like that. There are so many components that’s critical because everything works as a system. 

Marnetta: Thank you. So health and nutrition. Marcia, are there any critical areas that you would add to that list?

Marcia: I would add as well early intervention, early detection. During our application process, our intake process, we ask our parents about health history and any concerns that they may have within the family with their child. In many cases, some of our families express their concerns. As we are able to get to know the child and assess the child through tools and resources that we have, we are able to connect and refer our families to additional services for the children. 

Marnetta: Both of you have been at this for a while and really invested. What is the most impactful story that you have in your work?

Christa: You really want to get this?

Marnetta: I do, I want to hear all of it. 

Christa: My very first Head Start class 29 years ago, I have the cutest little girl in there, a little 4-year-old, pig tails, lost track of her over the years. Come to find out later, her mother had passed when she was in highschool. Her and her two sisters raised themselves in their house, in the country by themselves. They didn’t want to be split up. They did it with very little of anything. About 12 years ago, she walked into the center at [...] to be a pregnant woman. 

I’m really shortening this story, we were united and I begged her to become a sub because as we were talking, I realized that she was just really complacent in her life and she’s a very smart girl. She was very complacent. Did nothing all day. It was hard to get her to be a sub. But the first day she subbed, at the end of the day she said, can I sub every day, and I said yes. 

We got her CBA, she’s now been employed with us as one of our best Early Head Start teachers for 10 years. My daughter graduated in May from highschool and now she’s the receptionist at that center and Angelica is mentoring my daughter through the college process. That’s probably one of the biggest success stories. We’re getting her geared to be a center director.

Marnetta: That is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that. You didn’t have to short it. We have all the time. But that was a beautiful story. I appreciate you sharing that.

Christa: She still looks just like that 4-year-old little girl. She just doesn't wear pigtails. 

Marnetta: Marcia, what about you? What’s been your most impactful story in your time there?

Marcia: Oh gosh. An impactful story that someone shared in the community. We were out at a community event, and one of our mothers approached me. We do our day-to-day responsibilities because we love it, and we don’t realize the impact that we’re going to make in someone’s life. 

I just started something very simple, like can we accommodate a bus route? Typically, our process is for the parent or the caregiver to drop off their child on the bus route. They were asking for an accommodation that if we could go to the door and pick up the child. I said, well, let’s talk through it. Why? My mom right now is sick and she was just requesting that accommodation. Of course, we were able to accommodate that for the time being. 

A couple of years later, fast forward, the mom recognized me and approached me and she said, you know that simple act of picking up my child from the doorstep without questioning it too much, making that accommodation and something simple was a lot for her. She was going through chemotherapy during that time. She was unable to get up from bed let alone drop off her child. She said, you don't even know how much that helped me those days for that energy to save up and just go through my day and be there for my children in other ways. 

I just thought that was so touching because we do these things because we enjoy what we do, and not thinking of this greater impact, this greater role that it has in someone else’s life. She was just so grateful and thankfully she’s in recovery. She was very thankful. For me, that was impactful because it’s something simple that we take for granted, but this mom said it was everything to her for the time that she was in treatment. 

Marnetta: We don’t usually cry. Those are some very touching stories. It shows how real and how important your role is in the communities that we’re serving. There are a lot of moving pieces to that. Lots of different roles, different people with different responsibilities. Anybody want to elaborate on what some of those are? What does a Head Start program look like? What are the different types of people that exist to make this work?

Christa: When I think about a Head Start program, I see probably what other people see in an emergency response team. I think about a group of people that are ready and willing to do whatever, however long it takes. If you get off at four but you have to stay until eight because a mom that works a job couldn’t get off or couldn’t get transportation. You stay there, you do whatever, you support. 

Whenever I hear the word Head Start, whether it’s our program or any program in the nation, that’s the automatic thought. That’s a group of people that’s just sitting and ready to do whatever for the children and the families. That’s my thoughts of Head Start, just the emergency response team. 

Marnetta: That was a good analogy. Marcia?

Marcia: It’s a community. It’s a community with individuals that share a common value or a common goal. That is helping our families. It very much is a loving community but has to have that shared value and commitment for our kiddos, for what we do, because each day is different, each family has their different dynamics, and their different situation. In some cases, they bring the history or in some cases trauma. We have to support our community and it does definitely take that village but with a shared value and commitment in what we do. 

Marnetta: And your experience. We have these individuals that are really committed to this work. Any Head Start that I’ve gone to, the people are invested. They are mission-driven, their focus is on the best outcomes for the families and the children that they serve. 

Tell us a little bit more about your experiences, your personal journeys through Head Start. You didn’t start out as a VP. Tell us more about your experiences with Head Start.

Marcia: I started off as a Family Engagement Coordinator. That’s why I speak a lot about our families and our community. I started off as a Community Coordinator, bringing our families together and ensuring that they have a place. May it be their center, may it be our program where we can come together and bring our experiences and share our experience to become advocates for our families. 

My journey was through the family avenue. As I began (again) to fall more and more in love with our program, I wanted to be more connected. Not that I wasn't, but it's a different type of connection that you have as a coordinator when I decided to transition or move towards a center service manager to provide more direct services to our families and community. 

That gave me a different perspective as well because it was more focused in a broader sense that so many moving pieces need to come together to provide service to our children and our families. I cold heartedly believe that it is a holistic approach and it does take a different type of people with different types of skill sets to bring that service to fruition.

Marnetta: Then what happened next in your journey? 

Marcia: Next in my journey, I then became a regional operations manager. What that means is I was the lead in our Yuma County Area for our centers located in Yuma County. We have over (I believe) six centers in our area and I was able to provide support for our center service managers at their centers. 

As years passed, then this other opportunity came in as another transition or another chapter in my Head Start journey for Vice President of Early Childhood. I've been in this role and still in a transition phase, so in a couple of months I'm still getting the swing of things. I've worn a lot of different hats that have allowed me to move in a different direction in my Head Start career. 

Marnetta: Thank you so much for sharing that with the listeners. Christia, you're up. 

Christa: Like I said, I started two weeks before my 19th birthday, so I started as a teacher assistant and I think that was a great start for me because it gave me the opportunity to see everything from another level. 

From there I went to a teacher, then to a Center Director. When the Early Head Start grants came out, my Head Start director got me to help her write the grant. I was scared to death. I had never done anything like that, but I did it. We got it and I became the Early Head Start Director. 

Once we really combined our 0–5 Program, because we kept our early program just a little sheltered over here until we got it perfected and when we combined, then I was Education Disabilities Manager for everybody. Just currently, actually, Monday, October the 17th, I was promoted to Deputy Director. 

In my 29 years I've done a lot. I like to tell everybody I know a little bit about a lot of things because I've been here a long time, but I don't know everything. Every day is a learning experience, very rewarding, and I think every piece to every one of those jobs helps build me and get me to where I am. 

I can appreciate the staff out there that's actually doing that work now, because I know and am 100% sure, I've always said that to be a good leader, to be a good supervisor, you need to have worn those shoes. I can sit here and say, when people just come up with stuff, I can say no, that's not going to work. Or no, don't call them between the hours of eight and nine. That's their busiest time. It's not an emergency. Because I know what's going on out there, so I feel like I can better support them, understand them, and I think that's very, very important.

Marnetta: Absolutely. Relatability creates this connection. A lot of times there's this disconnect, especially when people don't feel like you have walked in their shoes which is what this podcast is about. How do we get people who wore the shoes and have been out of them for a while or have never worn the shoes to really understand what it takes to do what you guys do on a daily basis. It's National Head Start Awareness month. What do you wish people knew about Head Start? 

Christa: I wish that they really understood what Head Start is, because myself, with little advertisement, Head Start's just really not out there unless it's in the news. And sometimes that's not always a positive thing depending on who it's coming from.

I just really wish that people really understood who we are, what we are, and what our mission is because it's just like anything else—politics or whatever. People base their decision and past judgment on what they think or what somebody told them instead of learning for themself. 

I just wish they would come. Go to a Head Start center, visit, ask questions, volunteer, support the staff there, and be appreciative. Just learn and understand what we're doing out here and why. And why it's so important not just to us, but how it's going to be important to every single person one day. 

We are growing future leaders. These little bitty people are the ones that are going to run our country, take care of us, provide care, and everything. I just wish that they would just get out and get an understanding about us and what we do. 

Marnetta: That was powerful. Marcia, what would be on your wishlist? 

Marcia: Gosh, very similar to Christa, getting familiar with our program and not just thinking of Head Start as, she said it earlier, of a daycare. It's much more than that. We have highly qualified staff to provide these types of services for our children from our bus drivers, to our teachers, to our family engagement workers. 

Everyone has a type of certification to be in our classrooms to provide those types of services and that it's not just only education that we provide, but it is a holistic approach. We provide health services, nutrition, disabilities, and mental health. 

It's about learning more about our program and also collaborating with our program. We depend so much on collaboration with our community partners, with our parents. Again, it begins with us in a way of educating some of our community partners of who we are and what we do to start those collaborations. Those are key as well. 

Marnetta: Wonderful. There were lots of things that were said in both of your statements. What is the Head Start mission for those who do not know what that is? 

Christa: The Head Start mission is to provide comprehensive services to low income families and children, to give them the same opportunities as children of higher economic statuses so that they have the same opportunities, the same quality of early education, the same quality of materials and facilities to learn and grow in.

Marnetta: Providing that even footing for equal success. 

Christa: And to provide those, that whole comprehensive program to the family. Like Marcia said many times, there are so many components. Mental health that's not just for our children. We have parents that we refer to and provide therapy for mental health services for postpartum depression, anxiety, and whatever the disorder may be, special needs, disabilities. 

We have a DLL (Dual Language Learner) specialist, and she recruits and services our Hispanic population. She has really grown that component to around 10% of our funded enrollment, which is big in our area. We're really proud of that. There are just so many areas and it's just fully comprehensive for the whole family. 

Marnetta: You mentioned some of those family components, but those are definitely not exhaustive. What are some of your more successful family components that families really enjoy engaging in? 

Christa: We also have in our PFCE (Parent, Family, and Community Engagement) a 24/7 dad specialist that works just with our dads on promoting and providing opportunities for them to attend training and functions with their children that is focused just on the Fatherhood Initiative. That's probably one of our real successes. Like I mentioned, the DLL (Dual Language Learner) has been very successful. They do a lot. 

We have so many programs. I'm thinking today they're at the Homeless Coalition yesterday, they were at some expo. Every day we have really major stuff, success stories going on. 

Out of the 200 employees right now, just with a guess, I would have to say 35% of that are former parents that may have came to us as a parent with no credential but now has a credential, whether it's a CDA short certificate, some with BS degrees that were paid for with each scholarship. We have lots of success stories. 

Marnetta: That really speaks to the type of ingrained, just like the depth of the community and the commitment to this work. I was with you as a child. That experience was so motivating, so powerful, so impactful that it stayed with me. And now, I've circled back because I want to be a part of that and create that magic for another group of individuals. 

I'm moved. I know Head Start, did a little bit of work, but I'm definitely moved as well. We spoke some about collaborating. What opportunities are there? How do we promote collaborations that will support Head Start programs and caregivers? What are your suggestions? 

Marcia: There are so many, but for us, it is just being involved. Being involved in our community and not saying no to those community meetings, those committee meetings, because again, networking for us is key. Just being involved and taking advantage of every opportunity that is out there in our community. And if you're not able to make it to one of those invitations, send a representative because networking is key for us.

Marnetta: Thank you. 

Christa: We do that as well. We try to really make sure that we're really involved in all of our county's Chamber of Commerce. We try to [...] the Children's Policy Council, the quality assurance programs, the DHR offers. 

A lot of times if we have time, every now and then we'll have a little bit of downtime that we let our family advocates go help other agencies. They'll help Meals on Wheels deliver. We just developed those friendships and relationships and got out there with them because actually some of their clients are the same as ours. 

Our family advocates will help distribute food at the food pantries. When we have pre-service or in-service and we all come together, we do food drives and have the food pantries come and pick it up. We always make it real competitive, like however [...] you bring, you get a ticket and the one with the most tickets gets a surprise. 

There are just a lot of ways that we build relationships and collaborate in the communities. In junior colleges, we go to all their functions. They're a big asset in helping us recruit teachers. Collaboration is key. 

Marnetta: We talked about a lot of initiatives and we've talked very globally and very generally about Head Start, but each community is different and has different needs. CPLC, you're serving more of a migrant community. How do those initiatives differ? What are the different needs that that community might need? 

Marica: The difference or one of the differences can be that they'll transition to another program to either (again) within the state or or outside of the state. Again, bringing back these collaborations with other Head Start programs, other Head Start from migrants. 

When our families transition out or need to transition out, we try as much as we can to prepare the families in having as much information that they can have readily available, so when they go to another program they have that information. Or they're able to connect us to the new program and we're able to share their information. 

There are so many because with our migrant and seasonal families, they might stay here for a week. They might stay here for two weeks and then they would need to leave. It's just having that information readily available for them or for a program that would call in on their behalf. 

Marnetta: Thank you so much. We talked about how we can support Head Start Programs and caregivers. How do we advocate serving the communities that Head Start serves?

Christa: I think that a lot of that would come from, if you're not familiar with the community assessment that we do once a year. It's specific to every community and their needs, where their weaknesses are or their strengths. And it's public. It's open to the public. It's usually on each individual program website.

I think that using that for what is designed for to build programs around the needs of the community because the community that I live in which is one of our more central, our children, our staff, and our parents, there's a lot of crime and a lot of gun violence where we have two or three centers in our more rural areas that have none of that.

The needs in our area as far as mental health, parenting, parent education, that stuff, that's going to be different than what it's going to be at the counties a little east of us because they don't have that. They're very rural, a lot of farmland. Designing their program and their educational needs would be different.

I think that people in the community advocate and support by looking at community assessments, looking at drug rates, crime rates, strengths and weaknesses. That's a good start with deciding how to support each individual program. 

Marnetta: Thank you. Marcia, did you want to add anything?

Marica: I think Christa said it well. Each of our communities are very different. We serve migrants and seasonal, and we also serve our Early Head Start Program. They are different. They're similar, but they have their differences because of their location. 

Even within our migrant programs, we have centers in Yuma County. We have centers in Cochise County. Those counties have different needs and different resources. Knowing the community, knowing the resources that each community has is also very helpful. 

Again, it goes back to the collaboration and bringing in. If a community lacks a resource, how can I collaborate with someone near there and bring them to our community to support that need?

Marnetta: In the spirit of collaborating, what is one question that you would ask amongst the two of you? You have different communities, but you're on the same path. What would you ask each other? What question would you ask Marcia and Christa? 

Christa: I would want to know just everything about the migrant and seasonal because I've never worked with that. Our program has always been center-based. I've never worked with that. Of course, reading performance standards and attending training, you always hear about it, but I've never seen it. I would be really interested in the day-to-day operation, just different stuff, the eligibility criteria. There's so much stuff that I would be interested in. I just want to see what it really looks like. 

Marnetta: What would your response be, Marcia? 

Marcia: Oh wow. With the eligibility criteria, again for our migrant population, it would have to be 51% of their income would have to come from a type of agricultural work. Then we would serve our low income families, but the type of work that they do for our migrant program (migrant and seasonal) is 51% would need to come from the definition of agriculture. That would be crucial for us.

Marnetta: Did you have a follow-up question for your question Christa? 

Christa: I'm just trying to picture it because I attended a training about 10 years ago at an agency north of me that did work with seasonal, and I always just wondered what the educational data looks like, because for us, we keep our babies—most of them—from six weeks to five. We analyze and track and aggregate their data. I just wonder for a child that's just seasonal, what that educational data looks like?

Marcia: We have a system that is able to track that. We are able to show if our children are in their second year with us, if they're returning, because they might leave for a season, but they'll come back. That's also the beauty of it, that we don't lose out on that information. That we have a system that is able to track our children even if they were to leave for a year or two. 

Again, it allows us to say, hey, this child exists in your system, and we're able to track. Just in case we're not able to, we can do that other ways manually. It just takes a minute, it takes a little longer, but we're able to do that as well. 

I always like that question because it asks during our intake. Are you a returning student? Is this a returning family? We select yes. It has an ID. We assign identification numbers for our families and children. Again, if we don't select that check mark, the system will populate or say this child or this family already exists somewhere. Were able to find them as well. 

Marnetta: Thank you so much. Marcia, what do you have for Christa? 

Marica: My question would be about the communities that she serves. What does that look like? What are the needs? What are the ages? I know that we serve from six weeks or pregnant mothers to five years old, or again ages three. What does a community look like, but also what is the majority of the age group that your program serves?

Christa: Our funded enrollment is 750, so our Early Head Start program, the pregnant women to six weeks, make up 256 of those slots. The majority of our children at Head Start age 3–5. We have 15 sites in six different counties. We're big but small at the same time, if that makes sense, if you're familiar with the Head Start. 

Most of our centers are in very rural areas. We have four that are in the Talladega County area, which is a little bit bigger, maybe a Birmingham Junior type thing. There's a little more violence, a little more drug use, and lots more unemployment. I don't know why, because there are more job opportunities. I think some of our families just have to get motivated, and that's what we're doing. We're trying to encourage them and help them get there. 

Our more rural counties, we don't really see a lot of anything other than just the poverty level being low. It can be a lack of career opportunities and having to drive so far just to get to an employment opportunity that pays decent money. That's what our communities look like right now. 

Marnetta: Did you have a follow-up, Marcia? 

Marica: Yes, I actually, I did. I know many of our programs have been experiencing this. Has your program experienced low enrollment because of those factors? 

Christa: We have, but I think right now our numbers are very, very minimum. We had a lot of returning children, which helped a lot. Our family service staff did recruitment in all of our counties. I think right now we are six short in the Head Start program and three and Early. Just say around 10, which is a very good number for a funded enrollment of 750. 

Marcia: Definitely. 

Christa: I think one thing that helped us is when COVID came and reared its ugly head, on March 20, we shut down because we had to. We stayed shut down until August, but we reopened in August of 2020. When a lot of programs didn't and stayed virtual through the 2021 year, we didn't. We have remained open the entire time. 

I think that has really benefited us in keeping our enrollment and keeping our returning families because for the centers that didn't, a lot of those families worked jobs that weren't closed down, so they had to seek other childcare. Once they got them there, they weren't just going to up and move them when we say hey, we're back. They kept them there. I think that's been a big issue for a lot of people that are still seeing a lot of low enrollment, but fortunately we are not. 

Marnetta: That was both wonderful questions, thoughtful from both of you, and also some really great responses that we can really understand more about your program. I appreciate that. 

We are running out of time, but there's one thing I'd like to do before we say goodbye. As a last pitch effort to really get us to understand the importance, each of you, if you could tell me what does Head Start mean to you and why it's something that we should be running behind in a rally of support?

Marcia: What Head Start means to me—we've talked about this throughout this session—is it's bridging a gap in education, in services, bringing equity and an awareness to our underserved community. That's what Head Start means to me. 

Marnetta: Wonderful. 

Christa: Again, I can just say it really means everything to me. I grew up here. My kids grew up here. My son is 26 and just gave me my first granddaughter last Thursday. There's a closet in the back that was a computer station that he still always called his office, because after school, sometimes I would have to pick him up and bring him. 

My daughter, Chloe, is working as a receptionist at Talladega. She is the receptionist because she just graduated high school and is in college, but she thinks she runs things because this program has been our whole life and our whole family.

Like I said earlier, what it means to me is that there is a group of people in this agency and in Head Start agencies nationwide, ready to do whatever it takes to help these families achieve their goals and be successful. That's why you should run after us. That's why you should run really fast after us. 

Marnetta: Absolutely. Thank you listeners, and thank the both of you for joining me today. 

Christa: Thank you. 

Marcia: Thank you for having me. 

Marnetta: You can find today's episode and transcript on our website, teachstone.com/impacting. As always, behind great leading and teaching are powerful interactions. Let's build that culture together.

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