One of the exciting parts of NHSA’s 2022 Parent and Family Engagement Conference, in Dallas, Texas, is to tour three locations of Head Start of Greater Dallas. They serve 2,687 children and manage a total of 15 locations in Dallas County, including eight Early Head Start centers, which serve more than 240 infants and toddlers.

We sat down with Head Start of Greater Dallas’s staff, who have decades of experience in child and early childhood development, and discussed their initiatives, projects, and keys to success. Here are four lessons we can learn from Head Start of Greater Dallas: strong partnerships with different members and groups of the community, as well as with federal and state institutions, innovative classroom design, openness to change, and hands-on learning.

1. Strong Partnerships

It truly does take a village to raise children. Director of Center Operations Jeffrey Sundberg and his team prioritize building and maintaining strong relationships and partnerships across the Dallas community. Staff retention has been a prominent challenge in child development and education nationwide, especially since the pandemic. Forging strong partnerships has created opportunities to invest in the workforce, and therefore increase retention. Moreover, Sundberg believes in investing in a staff he could trust. For example, for many of the staff who are eager to develop their careers, apprenticeship opportunities offer on-the-job training that benefit staff, children, and teachers.

“We’re partnering with the Dallas College apprenticeship program and we’re planning on enrolling assistant aids who would like to pursue their degree in early childhood education next year,” explained Sundberg.

The Dallas College apprenticeship program will help prepare future teachers, through hands-on training and working directly with young children. Many Head Start parents also choose to follow this path, and they encourage and advise them throughout the process.

“We do our best to assist parents in their needs and also to better themselves,” stated Angela White, a teacher at the Lakewest Early Head Start location.

In addition to professional development partnerships, the Head Start of Greater Dallas program values and works hard to develop strong, long-lasting community partnerships. These range from: volunteering activities—youth, athletes, students, and seniors—to collaborations with state agencies such as the Dallas Housing Authority to expand and improve locations and classrooms. The partnership with the Senior Source’s Foster Grandparent program brings children closer to community elders and creates a special bond among them.

Another example of partnering with and relying on the community is the hiring process. When recruiting for new or open positions, the team relies on word-to-mouth communication, as they’ve built strong ties with community members. Forging these partnerships provides support and contribution from different groups of the community.

2. Openness to Change

Chief Executive Officer Kathryn McCartney has dedicated 30 years of her life to early childhood education and child development. Her invaluable experience and commitment to the Head Start community and mission add a unique perspective to the Head Start of Greater Dallas team. Keeping an open mind to new opportunities helps cope with changes, according to McCartney.

“Head Start has always been about change. We started in the late 60s and have evolved over the decades. We just roll with the punches,” said McCartney.

She addressed the improved infrastructure over time, which went hand-in-hand with strengthening relationships with the community. She has witnessed improved classrooms, new buildings, extracurricular activities, and an overall revitalization effort of facilities and services over time. The Head Start of Greater Dallas program raised funds to build two of their locations.

3. Innovative Design

The Head Start of Greater Dallas team is proud of their improved classrooms and services. The innovative setting of their classrooms allows for a better flow, especially that all furniture and objects are on the same level as a child’s eye-level. They worked hard to revamp the design and prioritized comfort and safety of the children.

“We take so much pride in our comfortable spaces, because we worked hard to improve the center,” said White. “The walls of the Lakewest Early Head Start location are made of shatter-proof glass. The ability to see from each ‘zone’ – from the snack table, to the diaper changing station, to the rest area – ensures teachers can observe children in all of their activities.”

4. Hands-On Learning

Through one of their partnerships with Texas State authorities, the Greater Dallas Head Start program allows teachers and children to garden together. Gardening activities are an insightful and active experience for children to learn about the natural world, where food comes from, and how to take care of plants and trees. Additionally, it is a fun and physical activity for the young children.

Thanks to building long-term relationships with the community, rolling with the punches, providing a comfortable and innovative classroom environment, and implementing hands-on learning strategies in the curriculum, the Head Start of Greater Dallas program and team will continue to serve vulnerable children and families for more decades to come.

Farah Samti

Farah is NHSA's manager of communications.

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