October is National Head Start Awareness Month. For those unfamiliar, Head Start is a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income children and families nationwide.
To highlight the program and all the good it’s doing in our Colorado communities, we sat down with Family Services Director Mary McNeill and Senior Management Analyst Chris Auer of Denver Great Kids Head Start to talk about the needs of low-income kids and families. Chris and Mary are a passionate pair and had a lot to say about their work, and what we all could do to help.
1. Tell us a little about who you serve through Head Start programs in Denver and why early learning is so important.
Chris: We serve 1,344 children throughout the City of Denver, ages 0-5. We serve a diverse population—59% Hispanic/Latino, 28% Black/African American, 16% bi-racial or multi-racial—and all families meet low-income eligibility requirements.
Mary: Early childhood education is so important. It’s where children develop their skills to play, and that’s a huge critical step in their brain development to increase school readiness skills. They need to progress to be able to sit down at a desk, to focus, and have those critical emotional-social development skills so they’re ready to learn. Preschool gives kids the fundamentals—they’re learning their ABCs, they’re learning their colors, they’re learning to problem solve, self-help skills, and to be social! And those are all things you need to get a good head start.
Chris: Yeah, I mean research has shown that this is a good investment in our kids. It’s about an $8-10 return on every dollar invested. Children with positive early learning experiences are less likely to be in special education, less likely to be incarcerated, more likely to continue in school, and just have better long-term success in school and in life.
2. Head Start’s focus is early learning. But what other needs have to be addressed to support learning for low-income families?
Mary: We know that we really have to take a holistic approach. You can’t effectively address early childhood education challenges without also looking at health, nutrition, and family support.
We do vision testing to see if an incoming student needs glasses, for example. We also make sure they have a primary care physician and dentist and are fully immunized. We provide meals and snacks for all students, and supplemental food assistance for our families who need it—delegate agencies have distributed more than 500,000 pounds of food this year so far.
We also have a large percentage of students whose first language isn’t English, so we offer a lot of English language and multilingual support. It’s important that we’re fully inclusive no matter a family’s language, country of origin or income status.
Chris: Our families have a broad spectrum of needs, and we make sure that all learning means are addressed. Cognitive, literacy, math, social-emotional and physical. We also provide support for children with disabilities. And, we work with families to make sure they are self-reliant—that they know of, and can make use of, all the support services available to them in the broader community.
3. Can you talk a little more about the challenges some of your families face outside the classroom?
Chris: Sure. We know that 21% of our children live in families where a language other than English is spoken. Many of our families are also dealing with the impacts of poverty. Some of our children live in cars with their families, some of them have dealt with trauma in the home, some of our children have never been in a formal education setting. All of these factors can have huge impacts on current and future learning.
Mary: Another thing—look at the prices of preschool these days. It can be incredibly expensive and out of reach for families with modest incomes. That’s why we’re so lucky with Head Start—it’s a free comprehensive program. Families receive the best teacher support and instruction because we have Head Start Performance Standards to guide us, amazing staff, amazing families, and so much help from the supporting agencies we work with.
4. What moved you to do this kind of work?
Mary: I’ve worked with Head Start since 1994. It’s my passion, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing our families succeed. When I’ve known a family is living in their car and see them move into a transitional housing program; when I see a mom who was in a domestic violence situation and maybe she goes to a shelter and ultimately lands in her own violence-free home… I just have seen so much growth. No two days are alike. I’ve seen how the program really does work.
And I can say that because I was an Early Head Start mother as well. I have two girls, and one has significant disability. Families with children of all abilities, much like mine, are supported. At Head Start, you’re never alone, you’re with a team.
Chris: I’ve been with the City for 20 years. I started at the Family Crisis Center with Department of Health and Human Services. I worked with children who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. I had a third-grade student one time, who, at that time, was heavily gang-involved through his family. I saw the effect that had on him, and it seemed like maybe it was almost too late to intervene because the impact had been so severe. I saw the job with Head Start and knew I could make a difference by supporting families. I’ve learned we’re only limited by our own creativity. It’s really cool, all that we get to do to support families.
5. So what’s the most challenging thing about the work you do?
Mary: We have 1,344 slots across our delegate agencies, but it’s hard to fill them all right now—largely because of gentrification in Denver. In addition to skyrocketing housing prices, which are pushing families out of Denver, families have a lot of fear around the pandemic and putting their kids in a school environment. To be clear, though, we haven’t met the need.
Chris: For me, it’s our need for teachers. I think there’s still a stigma in our society. People ask, “Why do you want to be a teacher, and how are you going to support a family with that?” It’s a hard job, and teachers don’t get paid enough. They often need to find a second job. It’s hard for our programs to pay competitive wages in Denver and to keep up with the cost of living. That ultimately impacts our enrollment because we can’t find enough qualified teachers.
6. It’s National Head Start Awareness Month. What can people do to help?
Mary: Since we work for the City, we can’t accept donations, but the schools and organizations that support our programs can. Every year, we use grants and advocacy to get winter coat and sock donations, for example. Most importantly, I urge people to take a few moments—reach out to these schools—or me—and ask what they need, what their families need. The holidays are coming up and many of them do toy drives. Our grantee organizations are:
- Catholic Charities
- Clayton Early Learning
- Denver Public Schools
- Family Star Montessori
- Mile High Early Learning
- Volunteers of America
- Sewall Child Development Center
Also, we simply need more help getting the word out. Follow and share our social media on Facebook and Instagram; if you know of other organizations that could help us spread the word, reach out and let us know.
7. Any parting words?
Chris: I’m in awe of the families we work with—of the resilience that they have. I remember one father who worked construction, had six kids, and still took the time to volunteer and get involved. I never cease to be amazed.
Mary: The family support staff are tremendous allies to families. If you can see somebody’s passion grow in this area and see that lightbulb turn on about how they can make an impact, it’s just an inspiring thing, and it helps you get through the harder days. It makes you say, “I want to do this the next day… and the next year, and the next year.” They’ll talk about Head Start at my funeral (laughs)… it’s really been my life.
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