The first-ever AFT Head Start conference in Las Vegas March 23-24 brought together early childhood professionals committed to turning back proposed funding cuts to Head Start—"a transformer of communities and families"—and to making sure that program evaluations are fair and give Head Start teachers and families a voice in students' early education.
AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson welcomed the group, along with Arleen Rivera, president of the Early Childhood Federation of Teachers, Local 1475, in Los Angeles, and Jeanine Berry, co-president of United Early Childhood Employees Headstart in Garden City, Mich., who both told the stories of their unions.
Johnson noted that children need a solid foundation in early education to make it to higher education. Back in the day when she worked as a public school paraprofessional, children from Head Start "came in well prepared and ready, and wanted to be in school," she said. "You can't wait until kindergarten to level the playing field. You have to start early."
Head Start teachers Iveth Sanchez, left, and Ruth Molina, present a book made by their students to Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the federal Office of Head Start.
One highlight of the conference was a luncheon address and visit from Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the federal Office of Head Start. Sanchez Fuentes pointed out that what makes Head Start different from other early education programs is its dedication to family engagement. She reviewed the benefits to Head Start programs that have come from the Obama administration's economic stimulus package and described her visits to Head Start centers.
Sanchez Fuentes heard from AFT members who expressed support for the professional development initiatives of the Office of Head Start. They also asked her to clarify what they had been told by their employers regarding their own education requirements, how evaluations were being used and the ratio of managers to workers. "We know that millions of kids and families are relying on us," she said.
After their discussion, Sanchez Fuentes was presented with a book that preschoolers made for her at Kedren Head Start in Los Angeles, staffed by presenters Ruth Molina and Iveth Sanchez, along with other members of the Early Childhood Federation of Teachers.
Another highlight of the conference was a personal keynote by AFT vice president Laura Rico, president of the ABC Federation of Teachers in Los Angeles, who began her career in a Head Start classroom. She linked the skills she learned in early childhood education to her success as a union official. "In Head Start, we work with parents and community. I've never forgotten that, and I've tried to do that as president of my local union. In Head Start, we emphasize collaboration. As a union official, I've pursued a collaborative relationship with our school district."
That spirit of collaboration, she said, is embodied in a traditional Hopi saying: "A single finger cannot pick up a pebble." In a union, she added, it's not about one of us but all of us.
Pam Miller, left, and Jacqueline Hass, who work at Western Wisconsin Technical Institute, were among the protestors at the state capitol in Madison earlier this year.
Head Start serves more than a million preschoolers every year. Even though only 40 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds are served, and fewer than 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers are enrolled in Early Head Start, budget proposals in the U.S. House of Representatives would cut Head Start by about $1 billion for the rest of this fiscal year. AFT staff noted in briefing attendees that these cuts would come at a time when poverty among preschoolers is high—it has increased every year since 2000.
In addition to threats of substantial cuts, the AFT is concerned that proposed regulations be fair, clear and valid, and that any changes come through a thoughtful transition process. To that end, AFT members took part in a workshop with Lourdes Lambert, liaison between the federal Office of Head Start and operators of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an assessment system being piloted as an alternative to the current system. She described CLASS as an observational tool based on research and testing in more than 4,000 classrooms. More on the program can be found online.
Participants were inspired by the conference. Paraprofessional Annette Parker, a member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, stood up and said: "How do we keep our paras in the loop? They should come to the AFT for professional development. This is the best place to learn."
The conference concluded with a presentation by Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. She described her own education funding battles as former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and exhorted the crowd to keep up the fight for federal funding: "I know that you all can do it and keep Head Start the treasure that it is." Galinsky also presented research about how infants and young children learn, and signed copies of a book she gave to each attendee. [Annette Licitra, Jessica Smith/photos by Michael Campbell]
March 28, 2011