From Passion to Practice: Providing Professional Development Opportunities for Constituents

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I never thought I could do this. Taking a formal course was never in my future. Now I am getting ready to graduate from college. I owe it all to Head Start who gave me the spirit and encouragement to continue my education. I am the first from my family to receive a college degree. Head Start believed in me when no one else did. —Tina, a former Head Start parent and teacher, currently an administrator with a Central Illinois agency

Head Start is one of the more interesting networks of programs in the country, because from its origins during the War on Poverty, it has had a commitment to having local communities shape the character of the programs and to having parents act as powerful decision-makers in the education of their children. Over the years this has resulted in a great deal of innovation and diversity of programs in some of the most remote and marginalized communities in the United States.
In the past seven years, Head Start’s historical commitment to developing constituents as agency staff members has had to be more seriously balanced with credentialing concerns. Specifically, research has shown that the presence of credentialed teachers in Head Start programs makes a difference in outcomes for the children. As a result of this understanding, a recent legislative mandate required that 50 percent of all teachers in the Head Start system be credentialed with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by 2003. The Head Start network has responded by trying to help organizations to plan and act creatively under this blanket mandate, making professional development opportunities available to constituents (parents and grandparents). The answers organizations come up with are as unique as the nature of their communities and usually constitute a rich mix of formal and informal accommodations.

The current situation in the national Head Start community is a large-scale natural experiment around the practices associated with the professional development of constituents as staff and is well worth following.

Parents have a key role in the overall governance of local programs. This includes the ability to approve or disapprove such critical items as the budget and staff hiring decisions. This intimacy with the workings of the program often results in a strong attachment and interest in employment.

The pairing of staff from the immediate community with outside professionals was an important early hallmark of the Head Start approach, formalized by 1970 in the “70.2” regulation. So while the Head Start network includes many formally educated employees, a high percentage of Head Start employees are women who have not gone to college. It is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of current Head Start staff are parents of former Head Start children. In fact it would not be atypical for an employee to be at Head Start 20 years while her own children grow up and her grandchildren become enrolled. These staff bring to Head Start a strong belief in the program, a first-hand knowledge of their communities, and strong credibility with constituents—other families. They have also experienced poverty first-hand. They are often raising their own families, sometimes alone. They often work many extra hours, attending night and weekend meetings and becoming involved in other related community activities. Head Start salaries are generally higher than at other childcare organizations and turnover in Head Start has been lower than in similar childcare organizations—but these things are relative, and there are still full-time staff at Head Start who must depend upon federal or state benefits to maintain their families.

Many of these employees are well seasoned, working sometimes for years at a program where they may have received consistently high evaluations.
Tina’s story is fairly typical. She has been with the program for 19 years, coming to Head Start as a single parent, enrolling and raising a child with a disability, and eventually working full-time at the program. When she was presented with the challenge of gaining a bachelor’s degree, the community provided a range of supports—personal and financial—to enable her to attend school and earn her degree.

Supporting Professional Development

The Head Start network and local organizations have employed a good deal of vigilance and imagination toward finding the support teachers such as Tina need to further their education. The most successful agencies have developed highly individualized (to that program) supports to meet the needs of their staff. In some agencies, teachers formed peer groups for mutual encouragement and learning that helped staff keep attending classes and completing courses. These peer groups reduce the sense of isolation that comes with meeting additional demands on top of already full days, spent tending to their work schedules and families. Some agencies offer paid release time during work hours to attend classes. One program closes for six weeks every summer to give the teachers time for their own training—the parents on the advisory council made this decision and found relatives and others to cover for childcare.

Access to computers and the ability to use them is another point of innovation. The computer rooms at some agencies have become “cyber cafes,” providing online access for Internet searches, as well as word processing for research papers and other homework. They also aid in helping teachers to gain basic computer skills to further their studies. For rural areas with significant distances to colleges and universities, this becomes especially important, as these teachers may need to take courses online.

And even if an organization offers a myriad of technical and personal supports, for many, reliable transportation is still a challenge. Staff groups sometimes use agency vans to go to class.

Change has also occurred within colleges and universities, because some professors are unused to working with less traditional students. Many Head Start programs have collaborated with higher education institutions, community colleges in particular, on a whole variety of issues to ensure that teacher needs are met. Conducting courses on site at the agency is one supportive strategy aimed at reducing transportation problems, providing a group learning environment with customized coursework, and offering staff a non-threatening environment for overcoming their fears of going back to school. In some instances, programs have used faculty with expertise in teaching non-traditional students or a member of program staff to teach course content. Often, agencies have identified a specific contact person at the college or university to help teachers to navigate the system. Colleges and universities have provided not only intensive week-long courses, but dorm rooms for cheap overnights as well.

For some teachers who have not graduated from high school, programs may provide tutors for literacy in English and math, as well as extra support in specialized areas of need such as computer skills.

Finally, distance education is an excellent tool for accessing coursework. Head Start and other agencies are part of the national “Heads Up! Reading Initiative,” in which participants earn course credit for doing a 30-hour research-based curriculum. Heads Up! Reading uses satellite television and the Internet to train early childhood educators. Subscribers view nationally renowned early literacy experts and interact with a small cohort group gathered at their local sites. Each site is staffed with a trained facilitator who guides and supports learning.

During our work with Head Start programs, we have found that Individual Professional Development Plans are a great strategy to improve employee performance, enhance employee morale and support the philosophy and values of the organization. These are individualized professional and personal goals established between the employee and a supervisor or mentor. It is a systematic approach to setting and measuring professional and personal growth. In this new environment, some agencies have developed a new staff position to help guide staff development. Other programs have blended these roles and responsibilities with other positions.

Many programs are beginning to use the services of onsite career counselors. A specialist trained and knowledgeable about career assessments and guidance meets individually with staff. Head Start has always provided access to training—so constituent staff often have such a hodge-podge of credits and training that it is difficult to determine the next steps in career development. These career services have saved agencies money and resources, because employees are able to develop a clear plan that acknowledges past work, thus reducing the risk of taking unnecessary coursework.
Developing a graphical representation of all the positions within an organization also helps employees understand what is needed to move or advance within the agency.

Head Start has a traditional process for celebrating and acknowledging successes such as attainment of degrees or credentials. It is a simple and inexpensive strategy to promote professional development. Head Start has been using this approach to recognize employees’ professional development since its inception, finding it to be a great motivator for moving staff to the next level. Many programs have expanded these celebrations and broadened the scope to include employee recognition days, small bonuses, award certificates, congratulatory notes, and articles in local newspapers or agency newsletters.

Mentoring has proven to be successful in supporting new and experienced staff alike, because it provides regular opportunities for individuals and groups to reflect about their work. The renewed interest in mentorship within the Head Start community has contributed to efforts at systematizing the process. One of the biggest challenges for agencies is how to define the mentor role within the agency. Is the mentor a stand-alone position with defined roles and responsibilities? Or does this role merge with other staff functions?
Mentoring has many facets, including side-by-side coaching, peer-to-peer mentoring and reflective supervision. Experience suggests that successful mentoring programs are ongoing and consistent, individualized and developmental, and reciprocal and non-evaluative. Mentoring creates an overall climate of intellectual inquiry, open communication, and an opportunity to understand staff concerns.

Connecting additional compensation to education or training is another means to support employees’ efforts. But that, and the development itself, takes resources. Head Start is blessed with a healthy budget for development of staff. Unlike many mandates from funders, this network does fund it. This year the national network has approximately $130 million for general training support—Congress has mandated that two percent of the Head Start national budget be set aside for training and technical assistance—and has legislatively allocated an additional $80 million for the new demands of supporting teachers as they earn their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. In 1999 and 2000, the investment in teacher training was $40 million each year. Certainly these numbers seem staggering for a small independent organization, but they illustrate a larger point. This network is acting on its larger principles of valuing and training constituents as staff and has established additional money beyond its regular training budget to support this work. Any nonprofit that has similar values might note this remarkable human resource policy and practice—and think what this might look like on a smaller scale.

The higher education financial aid system is available, and many of your constituents or staff may qualify. In Head Start’s case, financial aid advisors actually visit local programs, meeting with individual staff and assisting them to maneuver through the process. You may be able to negotiate something like this with your own agency or within the context of a staff development resource center or event for multiple agencies. Additionally, some states actually provide access to education at state colleges free or at reduced rates to staff of human service nonprofits. More generally, depending on your state, welfare-to-work programs may provide resources for constituent professional development in a variety of career areas. Local and statewide foundations are also potential partners. Head Start has found that a number of philanthropic groups have an interest in the quality of child care and Head Start staff and have made important contributions to the development of opportunities for staff. This interest in a field is hard to achieve and has to be carefully nurtured over time.

Prior to establishing outside interest, your own organization has to consider constituent staff important to the quality of programming and staff development vital enough to budget for. In many organizations, staff training budgets are the first thing to go. Make this a priority.

Head Start programs obviously are in an unusual position in terms of the degree to which the government has invested in infrastructure. These programs have been able to invest in their employees, and the payoffs have been great. Other nonprofits may wish to consider the degree to which they can emulate these investments, but every nonprofit organization can examine its budget and seek to align resources with this important goal.

Head Start has had 30 years of experience as a provider of professional development opportunities for its constituents—that’s a long time for agencies to explore how to align their values, goals and budgets to deliver quality services to children and families. The result is that Head Start agencies are “walking the talk.”

The benefits for community-based organizations electing to follow this course include building strong community support for their programs and attracting a credible, effective staff committed to the community—melding passion for one’s community and its future with the highest professional standards.

“Professional development is strongly encouraged and supported at our agency,” observed one executive director. “The agency culture is such that continued education and learning is a way of life for all staff. Developing professionally significantly enhances each person’s quality of life, contribution to the program, and the community as a whole.”

The authors would like to thank the many people throughout the Head Start system who helped with this article by reviewing drafts and contributing ideas, particularly Patricia Fahey of the New England Resource Center at the Education Development Center, Inc.

Dennis J. Sykes is the director of the Region Vb Head Start Quality Network (QNet) at the Ohio State University. QNet is part of Head Start’s national training and technical assistance network. Sharon Sullivan and Lauri Morrison-Frichtl are professional development specialists. They have worked together for five years to support Head Start’s professional development efforts in 150 community agencies across three Midwestern states. More information about these efforts can be obtained by visiting their Web site (www.regionvqnet.org).