Voices from the Field: Elizabeth Burke Bryant

“We see this as a critical economic issue: we cannot, as states, have the kind of workforce we need if we have children starting out so far behind and never being able to catch up.”

Elizabeth Bryant

Interview with Elizabeth Burke Bryant
Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Elizabeth Burke Bryant is Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, a children’s policy and research organization founded in 1994 that provides information on child well-being, stimulates dialogue on children’s issues, and promotes accountability and action.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Elizabeth: I started my career in early learning at the same time I began my career in child advocacy over 20 years ago. I was fortunate to be the first executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count. Right from the very beginning of our work to establish a child advocacy organization in Rhode Island, I knew that investments in early learning and early childhood development were the most cost-effective investments states could make along with access to health insurance, child abuse and neglect, and juvenile justice. Early childhood issues and early learning is at the core of our work and have been ever since Rhode Island Kids Count got started.

Steven: What do you see as the role of state advocates in improving the quality of early learning?

Elizabeth: Well, one of the things I’m privileged to be doing right now is that along with Cecilia Zalkind, the Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, my New Jersey counterpart, we have received some logistical support from the Alliance for Early Success to form an ad-hoc group of state-based early learning advocates. We actually got going just at the time President Obama gave a very impassioned speech about the importance of early learning and there were opportunities coming up with the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and others, and the Preschool Development Grants were fortunately right around the corner. We just felt there was a missing element to federal policy development on early learning, which was that we really needed state-based advocates that are used to working with their partners in state government to launch and grow early learning programs at the state level to really help inform new, exciting federal opportunities in early learning and share a taste of what was going on at the state level – so really a two-way communication channel. We started regular phone calls with state-based advocates around the country to do just that and its worked really, really well.

We appreciate the Alliance for Early Success for bringing us all together but it’s been a real peer to peer learning and strategizing opportunity and what we have found are practical lessons learned from states that have been at the forefront of starting state pre-k programs with governors and legislative leaders. We really have a lot of lessons learned as we try to expand early learning through federal opportunities. We really see that state and federal partnerships are the only way to ensure that many more of our low-income children have access to high-quality preschool in the years before kindergarten.

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality preschool for all four-year olds important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Elizabeth: First, it’s incredibly important that the President has identified this as a very urgent issue for our country. I think there are some people who believe the job is done, that children have access to preschool but we know in our states and states across the country that huge numbers of children especially low-income children and children with high needs are completely left out and are never in a high-quality early learning program until they enter kindergarten and that puts them even further behind their more advantaged peers. The President – using his incredible bully pulpit to focus like a laser-beam on this issue – was so important and continues to be so important and I think that governors around the country really understand the importance. They’ve been leading the way with very little other than sometimes beleaguered state budgets to put the pieces together for state pre-k programs.

Having the pulpit of the Presidency to focus like a laser beam on it really helps state legislative leaders and governors. We know that there are ways to partner with the federal government of which we always had partnerships with, head start as well. It’s been interesting to see a lot of the ways that – thanks to Preschool Expansion and Development Grants – we have been seeing great partnerships between Child Care and Head Start and public schools. We think the President’s leadership was really important in focusing a lot of needed attention. We see this as a critical economic issue: we cannot, as states, have the kind of workforce we need if we have children starting out so far behind and never being able to catch up. I know in our state, our state leaders – Governor Raimondo, Senate President Paiva Weed, and Speaker Mattiello – all see early childhood education as a core part of Rhode Island’s economic strategy. Having the President put so much attention on this issue has been a way to raise the visibility of this issue and the sense of urgency to serve more children faster.

Voices from the Field: Lisa Guernsey

“Right now the general public agrees and applauds the push for more preschool, but does not necessarily understand the work that needs to happen before and after preschool.”

Interview with Lisa Guernsey
Director of the Early Education Initiative and Learning Technologies Project at New America

Lisa Guernsey

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and director of the Learning Technologies Project, two projects in the Education Policy Program at New America. Guernsey leads teams of writers and analysts to examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed.

Steven: Can you talk a little bit about how you began your career in early learning?

Lisa: I took an unusual path into early learning and early learning policy. I started my career as a newspaper reporter working at the Chronicle for Higher Education, and then at the New York Times focusing on the intersection of education and technology. When I had my first child I started digging deeply into the research on how technology affects young children, and it lead me down a path of more than five years in developmental science on how the brain in the early years of life is affected by the people in the environment. It was such an “ah-ha” moment to be learning all this science at the same time as being a mother of two little kids. By the time I finished all that work and put out a book on screen media and young children, I was absolutely convinced that our country needed to change its ways and recognize the importance of the early years, and that many policies needed to be adjusted and reformed to help families make the most of those first years of life. I had the good fortune of landing at New America. The think tank was looking for a senior writer to translate research for policy makers. I have spent several years doing what I had hoped to do in the first place, which was to really make this research visible to people, and to help them understand how important it is to change policies to help families and kids.

Steven: Can you talk about what the role of New America plays in improving the quality of early learning?

Lisa: I think New America is in a unique position to be able to amplify and accentuate the research on children’s learning, and to put it in front of policy influencers. We are uniquely situated because we are not a membership organization. We are not necessarily speaking for educators or for certain funding of programs. We are looking at the whole system – or lack of system – to find ways to elevate research across the different pieces. We are non-partisan organization, which we take very serious. It’s an interesting place to work because we have analysts that hale from the republican side, from the democrat side, from the libertarian point of view, and many journalists and reports who are not necessarily attached to a particular political philosophy. So we often have very interesting debates internally, but we can also bring to the floor some ideas that are not from a political agenda, but are based in evidence and research.

Steven: Why you think the President’s proposal to offer high-quality preschool to all children is important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and some of the opportunities?

Lisa: I think that the President’s proposal and the work of many people in Congress is paramount for improving the lives of the next generation and for improving the success of our country in the next 20-30 years. It’s absolutely critical to understand that the learning children are doing in their first 8 years of life is setting the foundation – setting them up for success as students, but even more so as citizens and thinkers in the 21st century. To me, what has been really heartening to see in the President’s work and the work of the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services over the past few years, is how much that’s recognized and understood. It’s not questioned. This administration sees early learning as a critical piece of the education pipeline for students and is working to push that idea forward. And I think the challenges ahead are really to continue to accentuate the need for more preschool opportunities while also recognizing that infant/toddler care and the K-3 grades are critical and often ignored, and they need a lot more support and focus. At New America we make a point to look at policies across the birth through 8 spectrum to ensure we don’t only have a focus on 4-year olds, but that we’re recognizing what happens before children turn four and what happens after that. I think we could be at risk at undermining gains, if we only focus on gains made during one year of a child’s life.   We may see short term impact from real intensive intervention during that one year, but it may lessen over time if you don’t recognize the need for high quality teaching during the first and second grades. I think that it’s not understood yet by the general public that continuum is critical. Right now the general public agrees and applauds the push for more preschool, but does not necessarily understand the work that needs to happen before and after preschool.

This fall New America will be releasing a 50 state policy scan that ranks on how well they are doing on birth through third grade policies. It will be a comprehensive book so it’s not just about whether a state has good preschool or child care, but it’s looking all the way up to third grade reading laws. I am looking forward to the report coming out and hoping it will elevate the discussion on policies across the age spectrum.

Voices from the Field: Katie Hamm

I think the power of the administration supporting [Preschool for All] ensures it will always be on the agenda, but I think it also forces other candidates and political leaders to take a position on it.”
Interview with Katie Hamm
Director, Early Childhood Policy, Center for American Progress (CAP)


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Katie Hamm is the Director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining American Progress, Katie worked as a program examiner at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, on federal child care and early education programs. She also worked on international issues in early childhood while on detail to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Katie: So believe it or not, when I was thirteen I was a volunteer in a Head Start classroom. I was reading stories to kids and that’s when I knew I want to go into early learning. I was really impressed with the programs and the opportunities they provided to families and kids in my community. That led to similar volunteer programs through high school. I was able to work with my local Head Start to set up a program in the evenings called “Family Literacy Night” where parents could get GED classes, English language classes, or computer classes. My role was to develop a program for the kids with the other volunteers from my high school. So that’s where I got the early learning bug. In college I developed a major that focused on political science and child development through the psychology department. After college I sought out organizations in DC that were doing this kind of work. Eventually, I landed a job at the Center for Law and Social Policy, and Danielle Ewen was my first mentor and boss. Then I went to OMB and then to CAP.

Steven: What do see as the role of the Center for American Progress in improving the quality of early learning?

Katie: I that CAP’s role, since we’re a multi-issue organization, is to tie early childhood into the broader progressive agenda, and to make some of those connections – not only why we need to invest in early childhood, but why quality matters and tie it to, for example, family economic security and our broader economic wellbeing. And to break down some of the silos to talk about why it is so important, and using that framing to keep it on the political agenda.

Steven: Why do you think the President’ proposal to provide high-quality early development and learning for all kids is important to our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges or opportunities?

Katie: I think when the President proposed Preschool for All and the additional investments in early head start and home visiting – two years ago now – it really put early childhood on the map as an issue for the national policy agenda. I think the power of the administration supporting it ensures it will always be on the agenda, but I think it also forces other candidates and political leaders to take a position on it. It’s forced some movement in Congress. Even in a difficult budget environment, it’s allowed us to get some modest investments in Preschool Development Grants, Head Start, Child Care, and Home Visiting. I think by putting on the agenda it has helped us make some small progress. I think the challenge is really getting the bipartisan support we need to get the big investment – the $750 million dollar investment. I think that is going to take some time, but we’re slowly making our way there and I think we’ll get there.

Voice from the Field: Celia Ayala

“I think that we as a country need to care about all of our children, not only our own children.”
Interview with Celia Ayala
Chief Executive Officer, Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP)

Celia Ayala

 by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Celia Ayala oversees LAUP‘s long-term strategy and day-to-day operations, with the goal of increasing access to quality and affordable preschool for children across Los Angeles County. Under Dr. Ayala’s leadership, LAUP is successfully funding the enrollment of more than 10,000 children into quality preschool each year. Recently, LAUP created “Take Time. Talk!” as a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America commitment.

Steven: Can you talk a little bit about how you began your career in early learning?

Celia: I grew up with lots of children around me, but I think I can recall making a difference when I was a teacher assistant at 32nd Street Elementary. I was assisting in first and second grade classrooms, and I saw how one student did not know his ABCs. He was so limited in his language skills. His social skills were not well developed either. I remember spending so much time working with him, and just getting him to speak and getting him to ultimately feel comfortable with who he was. I didn’t realize that I could make a difference in a child’s life. But it was really in my second time of being a principal and having three big preschool classrooms that were for 3 and 4 year olds. I had children that had been in preschool and children that had not. I realized kindergarten is not where education starts, and I had been a kindergarten teacher in the 70s. And here I was in the late 90s, and realized that we need to do more in early education and working with parents – parents being the first and most important teachers. We can do so much more in kinder readiness. We needed to work with our 3 and 4 years-olds to get them socially, emotionally and cognitively ready for kindergarten.

Steven: What do see as the role of LAUP and local communities in improving the quality of early learning?

Celia: I see LAUP as a great brainstorm of a child that created something first and foremost about quality and all the support systems with no excuses. So it wasn’t an issue of if we could afford it, it wasn’t an issue of can we do it, and it wasn’t an issue of who could do it. It was building in quality criteria without any limitations. LAUP wanted to be a part of helping each child, east to west and in between, in communities with a mixed-model delivery system and to think about what is the best model without excuses or without limitations. And I believe that LAUP has become a very replicable model, truly addressing the local needs of every community in every part of Los Angeles County. We address the local needs of every community with a quality rating improvement system that is applicable to all of its mixed-model delivery partners. It is not LAUP and then the community. We are part of every community, providing quality programs.

Steven: Can you tell me why the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning and development programs for children is important for our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Celia: I think the President is smart because he wants to provide equity. By providing high-quality early learning opportunities, it is truly giving children a chance to enter the K-12 world on an even playing field. And it is about involving families and caregivers – because some of our children don’t live with parents, but with grandparents or foster parents – to work with our children where every they might be – a center, school district, or a non-profit. He sees that the benefit in the short term is the child, but in the long term, it is our entire society by preparing the future workforce. The children entering kindergarten need to be ready to succeed in school and in life, but it is also the workforce that we need to focus on because they are preparing our future engineers, our future teachers, and our future plumbers. I truly believe he is seeing the short term and long term benefits of these early investments and interventions. I think the challenges are that people don’t get the importance. They are not seeing that we are spending dollars on remediation instead of intervention. They’re not seeing that it’s not only a short term investment for the children, but an investment in the long term for our country. The challenges are we cannot get a budget to support it. And then there is a challenge in terms of making sure that we see that in the long term it is going to take time to ramp up, to staff up, and to sustain over time – that this is a long term investment in local communities, in our states, and in the nation. Those are the challenges: we’re not identifying the resources to support this and we’re not seeing this as potentially a ten year ramp up and sustainable effort that will hopefully benefit our country socially, economically, and educationally.

Voice from the Field: Betty Hyde

“China’s doing it. Everybody’s doing it. It’s time that we become an early learning nation too.”
Interview with Betty Hyde
Director of the Department of Early Learning (DEL), Washington State

Betty Hyde

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Dr. Bette Hyde was appointed Director of the Department of Early Learning (DEL) by Gov. Chris Gregoire on Feb. 10, 2009. Bette’s focus is on creating one statewide early learning system that prepares all Washington children for school and life. She strongly believes that school-readiness means ready schools, ready children, ready families and ready communities. Washington is a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grantee.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Bette: I spent the first 32 years of my life in the K-12 system and early on I was in what we called an Intermediate School District and a Supervised Head Start. But really I started when I was Superintendent for Emergent Schools and we would have kindergarten round-up. And we would know with great certainty which kids were going to make it on the first day of kindergarten and which not. And we just thought that is really awful. And so we thought what can we do about that? And so we did the research at that time, when early learning was just coming to be. So we decided to partner with the child care programs in our community. We spent the first year just sitting around, having coffee, looking at brain research, getting to know them, eating cookies, you know, that kind of thing.

Then we asked them to help us. And they decided that they wanted to help with literacy and we thought “Great!” The Bremerton School District is a school district with about 7,000 children, a K-12 district: now it’s a P-12 district. But it was in great poverty, a military town, so there was a lot of need. And to make a long story short, we spent another year with them looking at various curricula. They chose the curricula, and then we used our Title I money on the condition that they participate in professional development, that they used it with fidelity and so forth. And I was at Brandy’s Superintendent in Bremerton and at one of my first Board meetings I remember saying to the School Board, “well based on the sub-test that we’re using, about 4-6% of our kids are ready.” A board member asked “did you say 46?” And I said “No! I said 4-6.” And everybody went my gosh, we have to do something. And so, that first year, that 4-6 percentage on the DIBELS, or whatever we were using at the time, jumped up to 55%. I mean this is phenomenal. And then we decided the next year, well let’s get the kids most at-risk and put them in for full-day kindergarten. And although that’s so common now it wasn’t so common then. And so, we then used Title I money, and we started the year having the afternoon kindergarten classes smaller. Most parents want their kids in the morning anyway, so that was easy to do. And at the end of October, not sooner, the kindergarten teachers really identified the kids that were behind. Then we invited their parents to have them stay a full day. We would buy their lunch and transport them. And they just simply got a double dose. You know, morning and afternoon with the same teacher. And that bumped our scores up, you know, to something like 80%. And we thought well gosh, if all day kindergarten works for them, it probably works for everybody. We offered free all-day kindergarten and were the first in our little peninsula of the state. And honestly Steven, you know, it was like a lingerie sale. People lined up around the block, you know. People from other districts came and enrolled. And a huge majority of people stayed with us through elementary school and probably beyond. So that was a long answer to a short question. But being in the K-12 system and just looking at these children who come in the first day of school, you know which ones are likely to make it and which ones aren’t. They have the whole rest of their life ahead of them. And so we decided, we gotta do something about that. And so that’s what we did.

Steven: What do you see is the role of public schools and districts in improving the quality of early learning?

Betty: I think it is the responsibility of all of us educators, to be cognizant of what the research says about what helps children learn. And you have to be almost illiterate to not know that early learning is a critical part of that if done with quality. I think the role of the public school is to be aware of that and each district, in their own way, embrace early learning. I have had conversations with, for example, the superintendent of Bellingham, which is a relatively big district north of Seattle. He was asking, “Do you start with all day kindergarten? Do you start with preschool?” And I said, “You can start with what works best for your community.” You know, there’s no formula. But you want to have a complete continuum. And you want to make sure, like all the research says, that it’s quality from the beginning, quality all the way through- that you have good transitions from the early learning to the K-12 system. In Bremerton we used to have what we called ‘the hand-off’ and the early learning teachers would sit down with the kindergarten teachers and talk about each child in some detail. First grade teachers would talk to second grade teachers and so forth. And so I think, it behooves the school districts to see this is a big part of how we can make our children ready for common core, or for the increasingly complex world that they’re entering out there.

So I think their role is to be not be passive, or not, certainly not resistant, but to say, “How can we as a school district do what works in our school district, to begin early learning, to embrace it?” Can we give space in our schools for preschool classrooms? In our state we have our law that says if you are transporting kids and preschool kids are at the same bus stop, and they’re going to your preschool program, you can transport them too and get reimbursed. Things like that that really help school districts say they’re really our communities. You know, I talkwith my principles in Bremerton and I say “What do you know about the incoming kindergarteners? They’re our children, go find out about them and start talking to the preschools and the child care programs in your area.” You know, they’re part of the community team that you have to utilize to really get kids ready. Since then, Steven, we’ve had all this great research, at Harvard and other places, about how incredible the brain develops and so, so early- much earlier than we thought. So we would all be fools not to work together as a community team to say these are all our children, these are all our families. How can we each do our part and make them most successful?

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high quality early learning and development programs important for our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and the opportunities with that?

Betty: I think it’s important for a number of reasons. I don’t know to say this politically correctly, but it keeps us up with our international neighbors. You know, other people have been doing this for a long time. Many years ago I visited the UK and Finland and they were doing this, and have been doing it. China’s doing it. Everybody’s doing it. It’s time that we become an early learning nation too. He [President Obama] is cognizant of that, his advisors are cognizant of that, you guys are probably cognizant of that. He’s moving our country up internationally like it should be. Secondly, I like his plan because it is really well grounded in the research – what works. Again he’s got good advice about what to do. Thirdly, it’s not just like here’s something let’s do that. But he has this whole comprehensive plan. When he had his early learning summit, it was very, very clear in his planning that it’s not just one program. But he’s talking about home visiting, he’s talking about Early Head Start – Child Care partnerships, he’s talking about preschool. Oh and by the way he preceded that with Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge to build the infrastructure in states. And now I think this ESEA reauthorization is just a godsend in terms of how it really pulls out the importance of quality, full day and so forth. And I can support that it’s the national bully pulpit, he is president. And the fact that he is really hunkering down and fighting for this speaks volumes. He has lots of other things on his mind.

But this is always really in the forefront. It’s not just, the flavor of the month. He’s coming up with a more comprehensive, inclusive, evidence-based, research-based plan. So I really applaud the administration. I just think they are spot-on in terms of what really works to get kids ready for school and kindergarten and beyond. Now what’s the challenges of it? I suppose the States’ readiness for this. I think different states are in different places. We are blessed in Washington because we have good rapport across the aisles and across the parties. But I’m not sure that’s true everywhere. Every state has a different readiness for this. And so that might be stopping some legislators and governors, but I think it’s getting better and better. I think secondly, different states – and its related – have different infrastructures and data readiness. I mean, even if all the elected officials said we want to do this, you have to have a plan, you have to have some buy in – perhaps from unions depending on the state. How are you going to measure your impact? And you don’t just do that in a month. That takes a while to do. But because he’s doing this and it’s so comprehensive and it keeps happening, there is kind of a national hype. Kind of what people used to call a zeitgeist for early learning. You know, we often in Washington talk to other states, either to help them or to ask how are you doing this, and there seems to be not a possessiveness. People are pretty darn eager to share in terms of breaking down silos. I think a great opportunity is something you folks modeled with the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants. I remember very clearly that at every meeting we were at ED was there and HHS was there, the whole time. People didn’t just float in and out. People were kind of modeling with their feet. I think this is a teachable moment for early learning. And I think people are pretty eager to jump on the wagon.

Voices from the Field: Yasmina Vinci

“Early learning must focus on the whole child and the whole family”
Interview with Yasmina Vinci
Executive Director, National Head Start Association


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

This month the Head Start community will celebrate and reflect on the incredible impact Head Start has made on millions of lives over the last 50 years. For half a century Head Start has represented America’s commitment to giving vulnerable children and their families the opportunity to succeed in school and in life. In those fifty years, over 32 million young lives have been transformed by Head Start’s comprehensive approach to early learning – getting at-risk children ready for kindergarten and setting families on a path toward self-sufficiency.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?  

Yasmina: I am convinced that I have always had the very best job in early care and education, and this is why.

First, I learned an incredible amount about low-income children and families as the director of a non-profit child care center in New Jersey. Most of our families were low-income, so we tried to implement a modest imitation of Head Start. Mentored by the Head Start director in our community, we adopted several key aspects of the Head Start model: we had a nurse for two hours in the mornings, a neighboring pediatrician was always on-call, and we even invested in both a full time social worker and an education coordinator. We also were proud to be among the early adopters of NAEYC accreditation. While serving as center director I was appointed to the State Child Care Advisory Council and the Governor’s Employer-Supported Child Care Task Force.

Later, as a state government employee, I managed the Dependent Care Grant and Head Start research, wrote the application for the Head Start-State Collaboration Grant and participated in the planning for the implementation of the original Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). During that intense and energizing period, I became curious about how much early childhood money, other than Head Start, came into the state.  It was quite a chase but my summary (as much as I wondered about the accuracy of the information I was given) was a treasured document, simply because no one had attempted it before.

When all the planning was done and I saw our CCDBG policies in state statute, I was recruited to move to Washington and start NACCRRA (now Child Care Aware America) just as the Clinton Administration was starting.

Fast forward through Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a few other adventures to 2009, when I chose to join the National Head Start Association. I knew, based on my work with the Obama policy teams, that this President was and is committed to progress on behalf of children, families and education. Head Start, as the original, intentionally designed system could be at the center of that nexus but the movement would need to evolve and I’m proud of the change we’ve been able to achieve in 6 short years.

Steven: Why is early learning important for our communities and nation?

Yasmina: The first five years of life represent a critical period of growth and development – a time when walking, talking, self-esteem, vision of the world and moral foundations are established. When children are given the benefit of early childhood education, risk factors can be identified and addressed early, stronger communities forged, and positive early life experiences created so students enter Kindergarten eager and ready to learn.

Learning ABC’s and 123’s, although critical, is not sufficient to fully prepare children to be ready to succeed later in life. Early learning must focus on the whole child and the whole family. That means embracing a comprehensive approach to early learning, which includes home visits, health screenings, improved nutrition and two-generation efforts that provide a foundation for stabilizing the family and home, and ensuring the entire family is prepared and invested in their own lifelong success.

Hundreds of studies over four decades show the significant and meaningful effects Head Start has had on the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable children—lowered need for special education, better health and wellness as teens and adults, higher high school and college graduation rates, and greater participation of parents in their child’s education.

Abundant research indicates Head Start works and stories of Head Start alumni who escaped generational poverty with the help of Head Start prove it.  As Executive Director of NHSA I have travelled cross-country and heard the stories of Head Start alumni who have overcome incredible challenges to give back to their communities as educators, doctors, entrepreneurs, ambassadors, Members of Congress, Mayors and military personnel, to name just a few. By laying a foundation for success in kindergarten, quality early education sets the course for our children to become productive and engaging future members of our community.

How can Head Start programs partner with schools to improve outcomes for young children?

NHSA has studied and described several models of successful partnerships between Head Start and schools and there is no doubt that the entire community benefits when effective partnerships are supported and all resources maximized. We found that the transition from pre-K to kindergarten is a very important part of a child’s early academic years and an emphasis on child development principles needs to continue to inform and drive elementary education until at least third grade.

Head Start’s comprehensive approach, which focuses on the whole child and the whole family, should go beyond pre-K and follow children through their elementary school years. In diverse communities across the country, local schools are embracing the Head Start approach to ensuring children and families continue to receive the innovative and comprehensive support that is laying the foundation for success for these families.

These partnerships are also a critical component of Head Start’s two-generational approach, which emphasizes the importance of engaged parents. Since its beginning the Head Start model has supported parents as they get their education and develop the skills they need for success. Partnerships forged with schools – from elementary schools to local colleges – make it possible for families to get back on the path to self-sufficiency.

Adapting the implementation of Head Start’s rigorous standards to the realities of so many unique communities – and of so many families distinguished from each other by a variety of strengths and risks – the degree of originality with which local programs approach their mission is extraordinary. So much of this partnering and local customization is made possible by Head Start’s federal to local funding model. We look forward to strengthening these partnerships and continuing to lay a foundation for success for our community’s at-risk children.

Steven: What is the role of Head Start in the President’s proposal for early learning (Partnerships, Preschool for All)?

Yasmina: Head Start’s tried and true comprehensive approach to early learning is the model upon which the President has based his early learning proposal, which is aimed specifically at enhancing and expanding the reach of high-quality public preschool programs in our nation’s most vulnerable communities. For 50 years Head Start programs have served the poorest of the poor, developing an innovative, comprehensive approach to early childhood education that has opened windows of opportunity for over 32 million young lives.

Unfortunately, despite these success stories, there remain millions of at-risk children without access to quality learning in their most critical early years. The President’s more than 1 billion dollar investment will help fortify and expand Head Start programs that are preparing children for success, while also supporting parents in getting their families on the path to self-sufficiency. The proposal includes over 200 new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grants, new investments in Evidence-based Home visiting, and funding to expand the duration of the Head Start school day.

The Head Start model centers on communities coming together to support our most vulnerable children with a vision that focuses on the whole-child and the whole family. The commitment from the White House is a powerful step forward in ensuring all our nation’s children are able to benefit from these critical needs and able to reach their full potential later in life.

Steven: What is the National Head Start Association’s role in the national early learning movement?

Yasmina: NHSA is the uniting voice for the millions of families, communities, programs, researchers, and policymakers who are dedicated to supporting the future of our nation’s most at-risk children. As the only national non-profit dedicated to Head Start, NHSA works to bridge the gap between policy makers in Washington and Head Start providers by ensuring that the voices and stories of Head Start staff, teachers, parents and alumni are heard. In addition to advocacy on Capitol Hill, NHSA cultivates, supports, and disseminates innovations and best practices in state-based early learning systems, strengthening dialogue and collaboration between Head Start practitioners and researchers. Through grassroots action, as well as alumni and parent-driven support, NHSA is proud to serve as the voice for more than 1 million children, 200,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start grantees in the United States.

Voices from the Field: Amy Dawson Taggart

“If you care about our national security, then, you’d better care about high-quality early childhood education.”
Interview with Amy Dawson Taggart
National Director, Mission: Readiness
Vice President, Council for a Strong America


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Mission: Readiness is the nonpartisan national security organization of over 500 retired admirals, generals, and other retired senior military leaders calling for smart investments in America’s children. It operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit Council for a Strong America.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Amy: It really goes back to a time in my early career when I was volunteering with my church in East Palo Alto, California back in the late ‘80s and it was the murder capital of country per capita. So, there in the shadow of Stanford and all that wealth was poverty. We would go in and we rented an apartment in a tenement complex and we cooked breakfast in the morning for the little kids who would come. We were able to provide nutritious food and tutoring and mentoring. They were so bright and smart and energized and happy and open to learning. And you would look out the door and there would be their older siblings, middle school and high school kids and it felt like they probably wanted to come in too, but, they were too cool. And, by that stage, it was really hard to imagine how many opportunities were going to be available to those kids. And, after a while of regularly experiencing this, I thought, I love what I am doing directly with these kids, but this is one kid at a time. I need to go up river and stop whoever is throwing them in. I need to go and look at how people are getting into these situations in the first place – needing so much. That was really my number one motivation.

Steven: What do you see is the role of Mission Readiness and the generals and admirals in improving the quality of early learning?

Amy: We’ve got 500 retired generals and admirals now who are deeply concerned about early childhood education because according to the Department of Defense more than 70% of all young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to join the military. And, when you look at the reasons, their physical fitness is certainly significant. Criminal record is important. But, but most of all, kids are academically unprepared. And far too many are not graduating from high school or even if they do, they can’t pass the military’s entrance exam. What we look at is that that poses a challenge for the 21st century military and the 21st century workforce. We’ve got to have the most technologically advanced military in the world. And, we need educated men and women to operate it. So, when you look at just what are some of the most successful interventions that are going to help kids ultimately succeed in school, all roads tend to lead to high quality early childhood education. Research shows high quality early education can prepare kids to start school, ready to learn. It boosts graduation rates. It cuts future crime rates. It can even impact obesity rates by instilling healthy eating and exercising habits from an early age. So, when you are an organization like ours that is focused on how to help kids stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble, all roads lead to high-quality early education.

And one of our top concerns is the tremendous unmet need for quality preschool. The most effective programs are only reaching a fraction of the kids who would benefit the most. More than two thirds of States are serving fewer than 30% of their 4-year olds and just a tiny fraction of their 3-year olds. And then, six States have no State-funded preschool at all. So, there’s no question. And as a mother of two little boys, I certainly believe this, that all of us share a responsibility as parents, as citizens, and as leaders, to make sure that our kids are well educated and healthy. And clearly, there’s also a role that government can and needs to play in increasing access to high quality early education. So, the retired generals and admirals of Mission Readiness consider this a national security issue because if we do not bring young people up to speed and get them in shape, we face serious social and economic consequences and that puts America’s security at risk.

Steven: Why do you think – I mean you kind of answered this already – but why do you think the President’s proposal to provide high quality learning and early development programs is important to our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Amy: Budgets are all about priorities, and finding new funding for programs is always a challenge so number one is just finding that political will to do what is going to be most effective. And that entails getting policy makers to look at the long-term cost-savings. Congress often tends to be concerned most with the current year deficit, not looking at the fact that investments like this can yield a return of $16 for every $1 invested. But, really, when I look at it, it’s an opportunity to work on an issue that research proves to be effective. Research clearly shows that early learning works. So, it’s not about whether we should have it or should not have it. But, rather how should early learning work and what are the national commitments to making sure all kids have access to high-quality early education.

Voices from the Field by Senior Advisor Steven Hicks

Interview with Steven Dow, Executive Director, Community Action Project of Tulsa County


Steven Hicks: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Steven Dow: Most of our work was actually focused on adults, and we focused primarily on trying to improve their economic wellbeing. The realization for me about the limited impact our programs were having was simply frustrating. That combined with I would say more and more exposure to the research in the field suggested that our work, however hard we were trying, was going to have a limited impact, and not the kind of transformational impact that we wanted to have in individual’s lives at the stage in their lives in which we were starting. And, so, you know, the opportunity was sort of what the motivation was. The opportunity was that, frankly in the late 90s we really focused on two big pieces of legislation– both of which passed in the late 90s. But one got a lot more attention that the other. The first piece was, of course, the Universal Pre-K legislation but the second piece was also pretty important. While Oklahoma is not generally regarded or known as a leader, at the same time that we passed the Pre-K legislation, we also created the first tiered reimbursement rate for child care. So we were working on both of those things at the beginning advocacy level and the other thing that just happened to happen at that time was that in Tulsa, the Federal government finally shut down what was at that point a dysfunctional Head Start program. And so our organization had the opportunity to jump in and become the Head Start grantee and because of the way we had created the state legislation we were in a position to really get the program off in the right way- because, we had sufficient resources through Head Start and the pre-k dollars to really get the ingredients for high quality right from the outset.

SH: What do you think or see as the role of community action agencies in improving the quality of early learning?

SD: Well, I think there are two or three different things. You know, one is that I think Community Action Agencies think of their role more expansively than simply you know, working with the child. So the critical importance of the work with the family, which I think is really the hallmark of what an effective early education requires, is something which Community Action Agencies are already doing. And so they don’t have to build that into either their orientation towards the work, nor build the relationship with the families directly. And I think the challenge for a lot of Community Action Agencies, particularly those that are getting Head Start funding, is to really try to identify different ways of working together with the school system– particularly in those places that are expanding their pre-k or opportunities where the school district is often viewed by the community as the more appropriate deliverer of those services. So for us, we had to simply figure out from the outset how we were going to use our resources and partner with the school districts in really meaningful ways whether that was if they’re offering pre-k, partnering with them to meet some of the additional needs that families have with Head Start wrap around services or letting them serve the kids at four and us being able to shift our resources to the earlier years so that the at-risk kids in the community were getting a year of Head Start followed by a year of pre-k. Those were the kind of opportunities to partner and leverage our relationships that are deep in the community. When issues came up, that was where Community Action Agencies were much more connected to the needs of families. So just thinking about a big one we all think about as important is the issue of attendance. You know, the fact that often kids are missing during those early years is usually, in our experience, an indication of something else that’s going on in the household. And because of the kinds of orientations and relationships that we have as a Community Action Agency, we’re able to help the families meet whatever the challenges are and then help them get on a better track towards more regular attendance. And certainly in our two-generation work, the idea of providing direct services to the parents is something that’s just part and parcel of what we do as a Community Action Agency.

SH: Why do you think the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning and development programs for our children is important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

SD: Well, I think the platform, first and foremost of the bully pulpit, of really calling the country’s attention to the importance of early learning. The resources that communities have right now –that state and local governments have– are limited and so the role of the federal government in saying that this is not just something that we want to leave up to states and local communities, but that the federal government is going to prioritize it and begin to make its own commitments to young children, I think is critical. I think the federal government has historically been really the only significant funder of early learning for children through child care and with Title I dollars. And I think the opportunity to make an even broader commitment to not just serving the poorest of the poor kids, but really to help us understand that it’s something that other children can also benefit from and that it should be a national priority. The only way I think that we demonstrate that it truly is a national priority is when we put financial resources into the issue.

Voices from the Field

“It’s hard to find people at the state level that don’t support early childhood. But what you really need isn’t just people who say it; you need people willing to step up and advocate for it.”

Interview with Clayton Burch
Chief Academic Officer for Teaching and Learning
West Virginia Department of Education


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Clayton: It actually started in college. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was one of the college students who by the time you’re a junior reaching your senior level you think, “I need to make a decision.” I had a professor [at Marshall University] who said she had a friend who was running a local childcare center here in Huntington, and they were looking for someone to run the afterschool program for four year olds. I did that my entire junior and senior year in college and that was it—I was hooked. I knew from that point on that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in early childhood. I left the university and my first job out of college was teaching second grade in Kuwait City. I spent two years working with eight and nine year olds there. I got into some of the pre-K and kindergarten activities in the school too. Later I got a phone call from Marshal University to see if I would you be interested in coming back and running our laboratory preschool. So from 1999 to 2007, I spent eight years teaching curriculum and [providing] guidance to pre-service teachers, running their laboratory school, and doing outreach for the Southern West Virginia area on early childhood. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Steven: What can be done at the State level in improving the quality of early learning?

Clayton: It’s hard to find people at the state level that don’t support early childhood. But what you really need isn’t just people who say it; you need people willing to step up and advocate for it. Saying you support early childhood is one thing, but in the state of West Virginia, what we’ve been able to do in the last decade is we don’t just want legislators saying they support early childhood. We want to work with them so they understand how to support early childhood. We have a governor’s office and a state board of education that says we really know what we’re talking about. When they say early childhood, it’s not just kindergarten anymore in West Virginia. They want to talk birth through eight years old. And they want to have a comprehensive conversation. And I know that makes people nervous sometimes because in the state of West Virginia, we have universal preschool and kindergarten and we don’t really have authority over birth to three. But when you have folks at that level who really know how to support early childhood and they have a very clear understanding that whatever their authority is over—pre-k or kindergarten-it’s one little piece of the puzzle of birth to third grade. I think if you can get people at the state level to understand their role and whatever role that is, it goes a long way in creating a comprehensive system—and not a system that all of us in early childhood are used to: a very segmented, siloed system, whether it be birth to three, family care, home visitation, Head Start, early head start, preschool, kindergarten. We want to have a conversation that says all those siloes brought together are part of a larger context of birth through third grade. We are looking at $90 million a year in state funding just for preschool. And funding isn’t just being used in schools; its being used in collaboration with Head Start and child care. And we just saw this year the Governor putting a $5.7 million increase in first to third grade literacy. We have a brand new program that targets third grade literacy when most states are having a conversation around what does it mean if students can’t read by third grade. Are we going to retain them? West Virginia’s approach is very different because we had leadership that understood the comprehensiveness, the money is going to birth to third grade initiatives: school readiness, attendance, how to support the workforce, family engagement, and how to really put those supports in place in the community from birth to third grade, not just focusing on that third grade year.

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning programs for our children important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Clayton: We see the President’s proposal almost mirroring what we’ve been doing in West Virginia: bring local folks together to understand what a comprehensive approach to four year olds looks like. And when you start talking about the opportunity, we see the opportunity if done correctly is just more and more resources earlier for our children. To have a national dialogue around four year olds is really important, but when people start understanding the return on investment, and what it means to the long term impact on society, they see we have to begin early. West Virginia is paying attention to that research like the rests of the nation. We truly believe if we can target early childhood and put more resources earlier, then that return on investment is going to be huge for our state, and I think the President’s saying the same thing. The hard thing, I think the challenges, are the same challenges West Virginia’s faced the last decade. And that is, if you put forth an early childhood initiative, especially Preschool for All, be sure you’re not redundant, you’re not duplicating services, and that it actually truly does mesh with what’s already in existence. I think one of the things we’ve done well is honor what’s already in existence. We have a long history of Head Start in this state. We have a long history of child care and family care. How does this initiative support and not supplant and duplicate those efforts? And that’s one of the challenges we continue to face. The more resources we put into early childhood, does that offer opportunity to shift some of our current resources even lower down into the birth to three year olds? I know in West Virginia when we talk about the President’s proposal, one of the things we’re interested in is does this potentially allow us to expand what we’re able to do for young children?

Transformative Family Engagement at the White House Symposium by Deputy Assistant Secretary Libby Doggett

“Transformative family engagement is more than parent involvement- it is a shared responsibility of families, schools, and communities aimed at helping students learn and achieve.” That was the central message at the White House Symposium held on July 31st, attended by members from the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC), U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Serving as a panelist, I was able to share both my professional and personal experiences. Early in my career, I served as a bilingual first grade teacher in Austin, Texas and witnessed first-hand the importance of engaging families to improve student achievement. Later and throughout my career, I continued to see the strong connection between family engagement and student success.

Family engagement provides a critical link between home and school and has a profound impact on a child’s learning. Last week’s symposium highlighted the importance of family engagement and advanced a framework to transform our thinking. Some of the key elements of this framework are seeing families from a strength-based perspective and sharing the responsibility for student success with families. We must work as partners adapting our work to the needs and priorities of a diverse array of families, helping all children learn and grow.

At ED, we are committed to supporting transformative family engagement, and some of the one-billion dollars allocated to the 20 Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) states is being spent to support families and early childhood educators to achieve this goal. All states are finding ways to improve the quality of early learning centers and communicate the quality features to families. In Delaware, for example, the Office of Early Learning has launched a new website, Great Starts Delaware, to provide families with information on the quality of early learning programs, the latest brain research, and tips on what they can do at home to support improved outcomes for their young children. Washington State has launched “Love. Talk. Play,” a campaign that seeks to equip parents with three simple things that they can do every day to help their children learn and grow: love, talk, and play.

Waiting until preschool to implement family engagement strategies, however, is too late. Hart and Risely’s groundbreaking research highlights a “30 million word gap” between children of low-income versus higher-income families —a gap that begins before age three and can continue throughout school unless interventions are put in place. Mothers with a college education or higher spend roughly 4.5 more hours more a week directly interacting with their children than do mothers with a high school diploma or less. These findings provide us with evidence-based knowledge about the importance of family engagement, and how critical it is not only in K-12 education, but especially in birth through age five.

Most parents want what’s best for their children, but many parents do not know how important their role as their child’s first teacher is. This is what true family engagement is all about: making sure parents and caregivers have the knowledge and resources they need to help children get a strong start and reach their full potential. As we continue to look for ways to support families, it is my hope that as a country we will act to support families wherever they are to ensure all our children get the strong start that is needed for success in school and later as productive citizens.