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This month's alumni profile series highlights a new generation of Head Starters making their mark on Capitol Hill. Meet Ashley Kearney, an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow assigned to the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I attended Head Start at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Ward 8 in Washington, D.C., and I am one of five children. Despite dealing with challenges—my mother was a recovering addict completing workforce development training and my father was re-engaging as a citizen after a time of incarceration—both of my parents were very active in my life and instilled the importance of education. They wanted my siblings and me to do our very best and get the best education possible. My mother's belief in the importance of education was so strong that I don't think she ever let me miss a school day!

I remember feeling secure at Head Start. My memories include my teacher, Ms. B., and the school secretary at the front desk, who always dressed in one color from head to toe. The atmosphere at Head Start was welcoming and loving. The teachers seemed like celebrities to me. They exuded a sense of family that I remember vividly. Head Start always dealt with my family from a place of concern, and the staff made sure our family was ok. I look back on that and realize how special it was that Head Start didn't diminish my mother as a parent because she was working through substance dependency. Instead, they operated from the assumption that she loved her children and wanted the best for them.

The years following Head Start were marked by stability and upheaval. My mom finished workforce training, married, bought a home, and the family relocated to the Southeastern U.S. My school experiences there didn't have the same level of community that I felt at Head Start or in the D.C. schools I had attended. Though the differences were challenging, I excelled academically, taking honors-level and dual-enrollment courses. In high school, I was elected class president all four years.

I considered college a 'must-do' action item, and I attended and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Tampa. While there, I volunteered all four years with a middle school academic program through my sorority's youth outreach. This service prompted me to become an educator. As a first-generation college student and mathematics educator, I am motivated by the belief that all students deserve a quality education, the power of empowered educators, and the importance of mathematics education in intergenerational mobility.

In early 2020, I was teaching at a high school and had been recently named Standing Ovation D.C. Public Schools Teacher of the Year. During that year's collective pause, I rediscovered my 'why' as an educator and my desire to connect policy and practice. This newfound sense of purpose prompted my decision to apply for the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship (AEF). My fellowship assignment was the U.S. House of Representatives.

During my tenure on Capitol Hill, it was a privilege to work alongside my congressional leader and Head Start allies to advocate for Head Start and Early Head Start during appropriations. We need to fight for programs like Head Start; for its teachers, students, and families. There should be a collective push to ensure all the necessary support for these programs to thrive because it's the programs that help families thrive. Families like mine count on Head Start, and we cannot afford for it not to be there.

Just as Head Start aims to facilitate transformation in the lives of children and families, I'm looking for the work I do to change the trajectory of communities and go beyond the Washington metropolitan area. As I take on a new role as a Board of Education candidate in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where I have lived for the last ten years, I will simultaneously work to integrate the whole-child approach at a systems level for the Local Education Agency (LEA) in D.C., where I served as an educator for 10 years and attended Head Start. My leadership focus will be to elevate teacher voice, engage students, parents, and community members in advocacy, and work cross-sector to ensure better outcomes for students. It’s amazing how my passions and my practice have merged and come full circle." — Ashley Kearney

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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