Revolutionizing Head Start For Children And Parents Together

Two weeks ago, Angelicia, a Family Advocate at our Acelero Learning Milwaukee County program, told me about Sarah, a three-year-old child who had recently enrolled in our Head Start program. Sarah attended sporadically from day one and often arrived late. Angelicia tried to call Sarah's mom, Karen, and found the phone disconnected. Angelicia walked to their home the next morning and got no answer. The following morning, Karen brought the child in, again late, and Angelicia caught her to discuss the importance of attendance.

A couple of days passed, and again Sarah had not been attending, so Angelicia walked back to their home, where Karen answered the door. Angelicia showed her Sarah's attendance record. Karen shared that she has a newborn at home, but she was not receiving child care subsidy for the baby because she did not have a job -- and she had been having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Angelicia and Karen discussed ways to get prepared for the next day, like setting an alarm clock, laying out clothes the night before, and getting the children and herself on a routine nightly schedule. Karen said she would work on it and immediately walked with Angelicia to our center and signed Sarah in to class. Karen began bringing the child regularly and even utilizing the community center in the building to apply for work.

This example illustrates the power of Head Start's two-generation model. Without a family advocate available to follow up, this young child could have missed out on preschool indefinitely. A recent study from the University of Chicago on preschool attendance, which is driven by the attitudes and behaviors of parents, concluded that the more days children miss -- particularly those who enter with the lowest skills -- "the lower their math, letter recognition and social emotional development scores are at the end of the year." It also noted that chronic absence in preschool is predictive of K-12 school attendance. So missing out on preschool, especially for the highest-need children we serve in Head Start, can literally result in a child entering school without the skills and habits they need to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

But this example with Karen and her child is just a start. Will Karen sustain it? What if Angelicia is not there to knock on the door the next time? And what if waking up late is a symptom of a more significant health or mental health issue that Angelicia could not possibly diagnose? Why does this story matter to the work that we do as a Head Start company?

In our approach to Head Start family services, this interaction and progress is the beginning of a process to systematically track, manage, and support families as they work on family goals. Angelicia will soon complete a strengths and needs assessment with Karen that will ask specifically about the family life practices (like family routines and regular nighttime reading) we know make a difference to success in school. Based on Karen's answers, Angelicia will help her set a goal in one of four key family life practice areas. Karen's goal, and her current progress to achieving the next milestone, will be captured and monitored in our data system, and Angelicia will be evaluated in part based on Karen's success and progress at achieving her goal.

All of this will be intentional, individualized, and most importantly, outcome focused. We will not rely on meaningless process steps that allow us to say we did something, but ultimately do not lead to change. Sending materials home without engaging parents in a purposeful way is likely a waste of everyone's time, as is giving parents paper referrals to community colleges and assuming that we have done our part. Our approach to moving parents toward opportunity must be as purposeful as our approach to teaching children in our classrooms every day.

Ultimately, if children in our Head Start programs are going to enter kindergarten on pace with their middle-income peers, we must work as true partners with our parents. We cannot make the changes needed independent of parents or in spite of them - we must do it together. We need to collaborate with parents to ensure that they both understand the importance of preschool and are able to overcome whatever is preventing them from bringing their kids to school. We need to link what we do at school with what parents are doing at home to encourage early learning. And we need to support mothers of children in our programs to further their own education.

The solutions are not as simple as knowing that support for both generations is important. Sarah and Karen's case has a happy ending for now: Angelicia shared that in just a week, Karen had found a job and, as a result, had secured child care subsidy for her infant. Sarah attended regularly again last week, and Angelicia helped Karen find an alarm clock. If we hope to deliver on our mission of preparing Sarah and children like her to succeed in school, we must be as relentless as Angelicia was in working with Sarah and her mother together.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the latter of which is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. The series is being produced in conjunction with the Ascend at the Aspen Institute Inaugural Fellowship. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about Ascend at the Aspen Institute, click here.