Head Start State Collaboration Office Spotlight: Missouri

Every state has a Head Start State Collaboration Office. These offices are charged with advancing partnerships, policies, initiatives, and professional development to help Head Start grantees succeed in their unique state and local contexts. With limited funding and staffing, most Collaboration Offices are run by a single director. The role requires leaders who are entrepreneurial, relationship-oriented, and know how to generate impact. NHSA recently sat down with Missouri Head Start State Collaboration Office (MHSCO) Director Stacey Wright to learn more about her work. She and MHSCO are a powerful example of the tremendous impact Collaboration Offices can have on young children, families, and early childhood systems.

NHSA: The Head Start community in every state is different. What do you view as your unique role as a Collaboration Office director?

Stacey Wright (SW): I am in a constant learning process as a Collaboration Office director. While I have served as the MHSCO director since 2005, there is so much more to learn as every year passes. As a learner, my responsibilities are to actively listen to others, think, make comments, discuss ideas, ask questions, communicate effectively, observe, and listen for understanding. To that end, I spend a significant amount of time learning about the variety of early childhood services and programs that are offered in Missouri and what the Missouri early childhood system in which they are being designed and delivered looks like. I ask and reflect on questions like: “Are the programs and services in Missouri serving Head Start children? Should they be serving Head Start children? Why or why not? How can the program/State better serve all children?”

While I have been a member of the Head Start community for 25 years, I am constantly striving to better understand the heart of Head Start, learning about the program, the culture, the importance of the Head Start Performance Standards, the goals of Head Start, and ultimately how Head Start serves young children and their families. Again, I reflect on “Can this service also be available to more/all children?” How do we make this Head Start best practice, best practice for everyone? Can Head Start help the State reach their goals or solve some identified issues? How can the State help Head Start in meeting their goals, their requirements, and so on?” At the end of the day, the position I hold as Head Start Collaboration Director allows me to engage with the state and seek ways to better serve both Head Start children and families and all children and families.

NHSA: Beyond your role, how does Head Start work together for impact in Missouri?

SW: The Missouri programs and their needs remain at the center of the table, as we strive to support young children, families, and the workforce in Missouri. The MHSCO works closely with the Missouri Head Start Association and in partnership with Regional Office and the Head Start Training/Technical Assistance System. I would be remiss if I did not underscore the importance of our partnership with the Head Start Association. This partnership has stood the test of time. Our organizations have built a relationship grounded in trust, mutual respect, confidence in one another, and a shared understanding of our roles and strengths to support and advance Head Start. Together, we support the needs of the Missouri Head Start programs and serve as partners in positively shaping the Missouri early care and education landscape.

NHSA: We’ve all been roiled by the pandemic. Can you talk about some of the initiatives you have started in the past year or so that speak to the emerging needs of children and families coming out of this pandemic?

SW: While facing upheaval, uncertainties, and risks themselves, Head Start administrators and staff have been tirelessly working to lift and support children and families. As an essential backdrop, it is important to be reminded of the dramatic changes experienced by Head Start programs over the past several years. Head Start programs have encountered a multitude of issues pre-dating and extending beyond the pandemic. Some of these more poignant issues have included social unrest, staffing shortages, and extensive grief and loss among children, families, and staff.

A new international study estimates that from January 1, 2020, to May 1, 2022, nearly eight million kids, age 18 and under, lost a parent or primary caregiver to a pandemic-related cause. When the researchers included the deaths of secondary caregivers like grandparents or other older relatives, the number of kids affected rose to 10.5 million. We know that one in 11 children in Missouri will lose a parent by the age of 18. Knowing that the COVID 19 pandemic has created a greater need for children’s grief support and the fact that everyone has a role to play in supporting families and communities who are dealing with grief and loss, the MHSCO jumped at an opportunity to partner with a University of Missouri distinguished scholar on a program to provide professional development and resources for Head Start educators. This program helps education professionals by providing tips, tools, and resources for understanding, identifying, and addressing children’s grief. As part of this program, Dr. Tashel Bordere and Ellen Jordan provide grief tools and training, such as the difference between grief and bereavement, how children grieve, and why teachers are valuable to grieving children. Professionals leave with personalized goals for their programs. Further, all program participants receive additional resources for addressing childhood grief, such as books for varying ages, information packets, and funds for additional resources.

NHSA: You shared a lot in your submission about how you’ve worked to elevate Head Start’s voice in decisionmaking in partnership with other peers in the state. Can you tell us more about how you approached this work, which can be hard in states given Head Start’s federal-to-local design? What voice and perspective do you try to bring in as a Collaboration director?

SW: Anyone that has served in this position understands that it can be a complex-multifaceted job. It seems appropriate that I acknowledge the pioneer HSCO directors working for the projects in the initial years. They were insightful and they recognized there were certain characteristics that help make directors effective and the office successful. To this day, I approach the work, what the law requires us to do, and our role within the Head Start community and beyond by keeping grounded with these insights. A pioneer collaboration director, Terry Liddell, is credited with the opinion of “in order to function as a collaboration director, you must wear numerous hats and be willing to change these hats frequently.”

Collaborative relationships take a good deal of time to build, and in my opinion, can be regarded as personal relationships, as much as organizational relationships. As I approach the work, I am mindful of various traits I strive to maintain–patience, humor, and flexibility. My belief that Head Start is the gold standard and my respect for all opinions have also helped.

Over the years I have also found there are certain “do’s” that rise to the top:

  1. Sharing leadership and credit.
  2. Developing and continually enhancing a positive and supportive relationship with the Head Start Association.
  3. Getting to know the state system, resources, and climate.
  4. Valuing the diversity of programs and services within the early childhood system.

NHSA: One of the most striking elements of your submission was the Equity, Diversity and Learning Collaborative you developed. What were the most meaningful and impactful parts of this work for you as a leader?

SW: In recent years, conversations about equity have been permeating many aspects of early childhood systems, policies, and practices. Understanding that equity is part of Head Start history, and Head Start serves as a primary force in early childhood, our office wanted to be a vital partner in supporting Missouri Head Start programs built upon their long standing work in honoring culture, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our goal is to advance the conversation, deepen their learnings, and support their personal and professional equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) journey within their program and beyond. To that end, the MHSCO convened a team composed of the Head Start Association, higher education faculty and researchers, and vested facilitators to offer a Missouri Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Learning Collaborative for Missouri Head Start leaders.

We ran the collaborative through four learning areas (Intro to Culture and Identity, Cultural Awareness and Bias, Child and Family Relationships, and Services and Systems) and a series of eight online sessions. Each area started with a 60-90 minute webinar that included expert content, activities to explore that content, and a chance for discussion. Participants focused on a set of key practices related to the learning area using some exercises or additional reading or viewing. So, for  example, participants explored their own cultural background and how it shaped their identity. Participants may have read a chapter or two from the Head Start Multicultural Principles. Then the group got back together for a “Reflection Session” to have a deeper conversation about the topics, what they learned, and how they applied the information in their practice. While in large part the collaborative yielded positive impacts from program participants, as a host-agency there were particularly impactful parts of the work:

  • All teach-All learn approach. I found it incredibly meaningful and inspiring to witness first-hand Head Start leaders, partner agency leaders, and university faculty and researchers, who were serious about equity, and are continuously learning and pushing themselves to grow into better, more effective change agents and deepen our knowledge on anti-bias, race, and equity issues.
  • A fundamental value of this collaborative was to create a “space” that allowed all to feel safe, valued, seen, and heard. Facilitators created an environment to explore truths and norms and how they may differ for each participant. It was important to create safe spaces for what could be difficult conversations, and to push people toward the purpose of open conversations about race, culture, and equity.
  • As our office works with like-minded agencies and partners to make equity an explicit and visible priority, it tends to permeate throughout the organizational culture and offer a path forward to continuous learning, hope, healing, and individual and collective growth.

NHSA: One thing we often do too little as organizations is celebrate. We were struck by your “Thank You, Missouri Head Start” video. How did this project come about and what response did you get?

SW: For the past two years and beyond, Head Start programs, staff, families, and children have experienced a variety of challenges. In many cases, those challenges were intensified by the pandemic. So many times during this period, our office heard firsthand of the struggles experienced by children, families, staff, and communities. Examples where staff were not only “showing-up” but going above and beyond, making individual sacrifices, and serving as a lifeline for families. Head Start staff and programs were solving problems and serving as innovators in their local communities. Our office wanted to show our appreciation but didn’t feel like our words alone would be enough. Our words, taken in isolation, were not fully representative of those words also being shared by friends, colleagues, and partners also valuing and appreciating the impact of Head Start. With the desire to articulate a sincere, genuine collective appreciation for a job-well done, the idea of “Missouri Head Start Thank You” video emerged.

In the words of Office of Head Start, the Head Start workforce “are true heroes who use all their superpowers to create a safe and healthy setting for children to grow and be ready to succeed in school.”  With the intention of building on that message, the MHSCO invited additional voices to join us. Without hesitation, our colleagues and partners wholeheartedly agreed to participate and give thanks.

NHSA: What advice do you have for other Collaboration directors working to create impact in their states?

SW: Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Or in other words, be comfortable operating without having all the answers, all the time. In this position, it seems as though we operate as generalists. No one person knows it all. We must rely and depend upon colleagues with specific areas of expertise, knowledge, and experience. Bring them into the conversation!

As collaboration directors, we want to know all the “rules.” I have heard from those that may be new to the position wanting or needing a clear direction or a list of prescribed “To Dos.” While I can appreciate the importance of clarity in a position, I have come to realize the beauty in having latitude. In a job that necessitates flexibility, I have found comfort in leaning into the concept of not always having all the answers. Of course, we must have perimeters and boundaries, we must follow the requirements, and we must be grounded in what the Head Start law requires us to do. Take time to learn about our state’s government system, our state’s priorities, and the public and political climate. But also appreciate the latitude and flexibility the Office of Head Start provides and utilize our partners, our resources, and operate within the state structure to best meet the needs of Head Start children, families, and all low-income children and families.

Stacey Wright is the Missouri Head Start Collaboration Office (MHSCO) Director. With over twenty years of education experience, Stacey has worked in Early Childhood as a practitioner and administrator. Prior to MHSCO, she held rewarding roles as a home visitor, center director, and area manager at a local Head Start program, teaching and directing at childcare programs, and serving as an adjunct faculty member for a local college. Contact her at wrightst@missouri.edu. To learn more about the impact of other Head Start state and regional leaders, read NHSA’s Annual State and Regional Impact Report for examples of impact on funding, quality, family engagement and other areas.

Katie Dufford-Melendez

Katie Dufford-Melendez is NHSA's manager of State Affairs.