Here’s How Head Start Parents Are Building Careers As Early Childhood Educators
Dorothy Fredrick first heard of Head Start in the 1990s from a teacher whose children she was babysitting. At the time, Fredrick lived in Ellicott, Colo., a rural community about an hour outside Colorado Springs. Until then she had never heard of the federal program, which provides high-quality early childhood education to more than one million children from low-income families each year.
Twenty-three years later, Fredrick knows Head Start intimately. She is now the curriculum, instruction and training coordinator for the Community Partnership for Childhood Development, the agency administering Head Start programs in the Colorado Springs region. She oversees curriculum development, professional development and new staff training for 69 classrooms.
Fredrick’s journey isn’t all that unusual. It’s in keeping with Head Start’s larger mission to serve two generations, empowering parents to pursue education and careers, often within Head Start facilities. Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, an advocacy and professional support organization for Head Start explains that Head Start’s mission has always been to “to give everyone in the family an education mindset.” To do that, Head Start programs works with families as much as children.
Even with support from Head Start, it wasn’t easy for Fredrick to become a teacher. She says she lacked the confidence to pursue higher education. “Growing up in poverty, you are often discouraged from the thought of college and told that you’re not college material. And so, I didn’t believe that I would ever do anything like this,” she explains. But her view changed when her son’s teachers invited her into the classroom as a volunteer and encouraged her to apply to be a substitute teacher. Fredrick was drawn to the work and deeply enjoyed interacting with children.
Fredrick, who admits that she was initially terrified, remembers how influential the Head Start teachers were. “They were willing to show me, and I was willing to learn. They gave me meaningful tasks—not just [to] go sit in the corner and cut things out,” she recalls. Fredrick says they taught her how to work with her own child, but also how to help other children in the classroom.
Fredrick says that the Head Start teachers—as well as others in the Head Start community—were helpful in another way as well: They supported her as she left an abusive marriage. Fredrick couldn’t afford a lawyer and the family advocate helped her find support for the process of filing for divorce. The family advocate also connected her to a food pantry to ensure that she and her sons had enough to eat. But most of all, Fredrick remembers that Head Start staff “really worked to get it through my head that I was smart, capable, and could do anything I set my mind to. They gave me the courage to pursue a career in early childhood education.”
With that crucial support from Head Start staff, Fredrick was hooked on early childhood education. After volunteering in her son’s class, she says, “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. There are so many children out there who just need that extra hand up, you know?” Fredrick found that she could provide that hand.
After a short time subbing, she obtained her Child Development Associate (CDA) for free through her local Head Start agency, which qualified her to be a classroom aide. She then went on to earn an associate degree in 2002, a credential that qualified her to be a lead teacher. Her Head Start agency covered the bill for that too. (Workforce requirements have changed since then with the 2007 Head Start reauthorization act requiring at least 50 percent of lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree by 2013.)
Today, Fredrick has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, paid for through a combination of Head Start support and scholarships. These credentials allowed her to move into other positions within Head Start. After 12 years in the classroom, Fredrick became an instructional coach, helping teachers, often through modeling. Today, she designs curricula and provides professional development for an entire Head Start agency.
It’s come full circle for Fredrick, who two years ago taught in a CDA credential program like the one that she had completed more than 20 years ago. As an instructor, she had near-instant credibility with students who came to the program through their experience as Head Start parents. “I could tell them, ‘This is where I came from,’” she says.
Head Start is built around the concept of serving the entire family. Originally developed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, the program was responsive to research that suggested that the cycle of poverty could be broken through better access to high-quality early childhood education for children from low-income families.
In the 2018-2019 school year, approximately 61,000 Head Start staff members—or close to a quarter—were current or former Head Start parents.
Head Start emphasized local control from the beginning, with community organizations running Head Start facilities and parents and community members represented on local governing boards. While there has always been federal funding for the program, the type of support available to parents and the amount of money that programs spend on this support—whether it involves training and career development or partnerships with local food pantries or English learning programs—has always varied significantly by location.
Head Start has evolved in many ways since it was first created. Today, the organization has performance standards, there is more national oversight of local programs and credentialing requirements for teachers are higher than they’ve been in the past. But Head Start remains true to that original vision of serving both children and families in order to break the cycle of poverty.
Amy Hurley, a former Head Start parent who is now a lead teacher at Share Head Start in Honea, South Carolina, understands that mission better than most. Today, Hurley—a single mother of four boys—worries about constructing lesson plans that will be accessible to the three year-olds she serves. She takes work home frequently because planning time during naptime and after school is often insufficient. But not so long ago, Hurley was in a similar position as the parents that she now sees each morning at dropoff.
Hurley says the staff members at her son’s Head Start center were supportive. “When I didn’t have diapers for my children, they would offer that,” she recalls.
Like Fredrick, Hurley was also supported by Head Start in becoming an early childhood teacher. She began pursuing an associate degree to become a medical technician, but switched to early childhood education when she saw that she could have more flexible hours working at the center where her son was a student. “[Head Start] helped by allowing me to make money for my family and, at the same time, get [time] off to take my classes,” she says.
Hurley says her personal experience has been helpful as she communicates with the family members of her students. “Parents come in and talk to me about problems they’re having and I can tell them, ‘Hey, I know. I have four boys. I’ve been through this. I’ve seen this. It’s going to be okay.’”
Pilar Anglero-Aviles, now a lead teacher at the Bank Street Head Start in New York City, has also been on both the parent and teacher side of Head Start’s whole family approach. She first encountered Head Start as a parent and she reflects that her son’s teachers were very supportive, especially in helping her navigate the tricky process of getting special services for him.
At the time, Anglero-Aviles was 21 years old, working in retail to make ends meet. “I went through a phase where I was blaming myself. Like I wasn’t giving my son everything he needed. I wasn’t preparing him for school,” she recalls.
With emotional and financial support from her son’s Head Start program, Anglero-Aviles decided to go to school to study early childhood education and pursue a career as a preschool teacher. She’s not the only one; four of her colleagues also started as Head Start parents. Over time, she obtained both an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree and is now working toward her master’s degree at Bank Street College of Education, paid for by her Head Start facility, which is affiliated with Bank Street. She teaches full time and takes classes at night.
Teachers and administrators at her school support her learning by giving her opportunities to do field work in the classrooms. When Anglero-Aviles was an assistant teacher, school administrators allowed her to observe other classrooms to see how other teachers approach instruction. And the teachers at her school supported her in continuing her studies. They encouraged her and inspired her to do more. They’d ask questions like: “You’re going to school. What are you going to do next? What do you want to do?”
Now, as a lead teacher, she tries to do the same for other families. “I know there’s an assistant teacher certification you can find online, so I’ve been pushing a lot of moms to get that because they can definitely get a little bit more money with that,” she says.
But for Anglero-Aviles, outreach to parents about becoming educators is about something larger than having a stable—albeit small—source of income. She wants other parents to find as much meaning in their work as she has. “I love this age. It is so important...this is the foundation. And if my son can use his words to communicate with his teacher here, he’ll be doing that in kindergarten.”
Developing the teacher pipeline by investing in parents’ early childhood education careers is a smart strategy for Head Start. With low compensation and hard working conditions the norm, turnover rates are high among early childhood educators. But Head Start parents know the model and often feel committed to it. Head Start does not keep data on retention rates of parents who’ve become teachers as compared with the general Head Start teacher population. However, the National Head Start Association reports that a significant portion of Head Start’s staff are current or former Head Start parents. In the 2018-2019 school year, approximately 61,000 Head Start staff members—or close to a quarter—fit that description.
In her role leading the National Head Start Association, Vinci says parents often feel “passion...for a place where that they had a change in trajectory in their life and vision for a better future.”
Dorothy Fredrick, the Colorado-based teacher who’s been working for Head Start for more than two decades puts it like this: “What they did for me, I could never repay it, but I’m trying hard.”