Head Start School-Community Partnerships Create Change

All across the country, Head Start, school, and community organizations are working to address the fundamental fragmentation that characterizes our mixed-delivery early childhood systems. David Jacobson, a nationally recognized expert and innovator in education reform, leads the Education Development Center’s First 10 initiative, which supports school-community partnerships to improve outcomes for children ages birth through 10 and their families. David has been intentional about ensuring Head Start has a place at the table as schools and communities work to better align a child’s education experience during the first ten years of life. He stopped by NHSA to share some of his insights into how Head Start and school districts are working together.

In my work leading First 10 school-community partnerships, I’ve witnessed the vital role that Head Start and Early Head Start programs play in supporting the whole child and promoting family well-being. Head Start leaders are part of innovative First 10 initiatives across the country that are successfully reinventing school-community partnerships focused on young children and their families. Now more than ever, Head Start agencies have an opportunity to extend their influence, drive change, and improve outcomes for all children and families in their communities.

Collaborating with school districts to improve teaching and learning.

In rural central Maine, the Southern Kennebec Child Development Corporation Head Start operates the prekindergarten classes in the buildings of the RSU 12 school district. The Head Start program and the school district jointly participated in a First 10 initiative sponsored by the Maine Department of Education. As a result, they have expanded transition meetings between the two programs to include all rising kindergarteners rather than only students with individualized education programs (IEPs). The Head Start and kindergarten teachers conduct cross-classroom visits and participate in vertical team meetings. The school district has also revamped all of its structures, processes, and guidance documents to more intentionally and comprehensively incorporate prekindergarten classrooms into the workings of its elementary schools.

Providing comprehensive services.

Numerous Head Start agencies have shared their long experience and strong relationships with health and social service providers with their First 10 partners. The Southern Kennebec Head Start partnered with the RSU 12 school district on a health institute that served 100 families with young children, providing health and wellness workshops and a range of resources to families.

Likewise, Head Start agencies in First 10 partnerships in East Providence, Johnston, and Woonsocket, Rhode Island have acted as liaisons connecting First 10 partners to each city’s health equity zone—partnerships of health and social service agencies that support and amplify First 10 strategies.

Co-leading a First 10 school-community partnership.

At a transition to kindergarten conference that I led in Rhode Island, two groups of educators—one from a Head Start agency and one from a school district—discovered that while they did not know each other, they were from the same small city of Woonsocket. They pulled their tables together and began what has become a deep and durable collaboration.

The Woonsocket Head Start agency now operates two inclusion classrooms in one of the district’s elementary schools. Every year, during the first three days of school, Head Start teachers are posted to the elementary schools to greet their former students, creating strong and warm connections and transferring trust to the new kindergarten teachers and schools. Head Start and the school district have partnered on joint professional learning and community family support and now they are co-leading their First 10 partnership.

Anchoring change.

The community agencies that house Head Start programs are bringing the full complement of their resources as multi-program social service agencies to their work co-anchoring First 10 partnerships. The Community Progress Council (CPC) in York, Pennsylvania—which operates Head Start classrooms, prekindergarten classrooms in elementary schools, the WIC office, and many other services throughout the city—serves on the city’s First 10 advisory team and numerous First 10 workgroups. CPC plays a critical role advancing efforts that include full-service community schools, school-connected play-and-learn groups, transition to kindergarten activities, and joint professional learning on social-emotional learning and early literacy.

The Community Action Partnership (CAP) agency in nearby Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is a countywide example. The CAP agency operates Head Start, Parents as Teachers, and other programs for families with young children throughout the county. They have played the role of backbone organization, winning a United Way Collective Impact grant and supporting First 10 partnerships in seven county communities. In doing so, they are driving substantive, lasting partnership improvement efforts throughout the county.

These are just a few of many examples of Head Start leaders’ great work in First 10 partnerships, and together they suggest a call to action. Head Start agencies are ideally positioned to draw on their relationships with school districts and community-based providers and introduce them to the power of action-oriented school-community partnerships focused on children and families. They can spread the word about the concrete benefits of the strategies these partnerships implement, including improvements in school readiness, on-time kindergarten registration, family engagement and support, attendance, and early grades achievement. In doing so, Head Start leaders can build on the success of their model to support comprehensive change that benefits young children and families throughout their communities.

David Jacobson is a principal technical advisor at Education Development Center in Boston and the author of the 2019 report “All Children Learn and Thrive: Building First 10 Schools and Communities.”

Dr. Deborah Bergeron

Dr. B served as director of the Office of Head Start from 2018-21. From 2019-21 she broadened her leadership as director of the Office of Early Childhood Development in the Administration for Children and Families. Known as "Dr. B" to former students and teachers, she spent three decades in pre-K–12 public education as a classroom teacher and school administrator. She currently serves as deputy director for Community Engagement and Innovation at the National Head Start Association.

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