“I want to advocate for Head Start to make sure every child has that opportunity to get ahead and develop skills at an early age.” These words were spoken by Head Start parent Jordan Dickey of Salina, KS after she participated in the National Head Start Association’s 2017 Fall Leadership Institute and Parents as Leaders Training in Washington, D.C., this past September. As part of the training, Dickey joined more than a thousand parents, staff and alumni in the Families Unite for Head Start Hill Day and Spirit Rally on Capitol Hill. This grassroots army of supporters from all over the country descended on Congress with a clear message: early childhood development programs like Head Start are critical to our children’s future.
Like all great advocates, these parents’ passion came from their own experiences. When Head Start was launched in 1965, at its core was the idea that families and communities were integral to supporting children’s successful early learning and development. Today, family engagement remains a hallmark of the Head Start program, and fundamental to its success as a window of opportunity for all children, regardless of their circumstances at birth.
The power of parents as their children’s strongest advocates was inspiring to witness during NHSA’s inaugural Families Unite advocacy day this past fall. After getting fired up at a spirit rally featuring more than a half dozen Congressional supporters from both the House and Senate, the Head Start advocates hit the halls of Congress for face-to-face meetings with their elected representatives to share their personal experiences. Each parent had his or her own heartfelt story to tell about the difference Head Start had made in a child’s educational, physical, social, and emotional development. “Throughout our son’s first year in the program, he learned his letters and numbers up to 20, he learned how to write his name and he learned to spell several three- and four-letter words” said Aldrena Roquemore of Colorado Springs, CO. “Now, at 4 years old and with one more year left in Head Start, Damani is meeting the Colorado benchmarks for children starting Kindergarten.”
The families also explained how Head Start empowered them to play a meaningful role in their child’s development and overall success through the program’s emphasis on a flexible local design and its two-generational approach to early learning. Quinettia Cole of Biloxi, MS, said Head Start “educates not only the child but the entire family. My family and I read more and are doing more family activities” since her child was enrolled in an Early Head Start program. La’Tina Harris of Jacksonville, FL, told members of Congress, “Head Start and Early Head Start not only help our children become prepared for school, they ensure that parents play an active role in the learning process.”
Head Start has a positive impact not just on individual families, the advocates said, but on their broader communities as well, from creating jobs to disrupting the cycle of poverty for parents. The bottom line, these families said again and again, was that Congress needs to increase the federal commitment to Head Start so even more children, families and communities have the same opportunity to thrive that their families have received.
For many parents attending the Hill Day and Spirit Rally, this was their first time in Washington, D.C., let alone speaking with an elected official. With the continuation of NHSA’s Families Unite for Head Start Campaign in 2018, parents will have many more opportunities to continue developing into leaders and advocates for their children. I can’t wait to see what they do next.