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January 11, 2017

A Meeting Between Kathleen Sullivan, Children First Inc. and Ralph Smith, Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

One of the most important and impactful benefits of being involved in the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is the ability to connect with other communities and individuals committed to making a difference for our children.  Recently, Head Start held the 2016 Parent, Staff, and Leadership Training Conference in Puerto Rico. When we found out Ralph Smith, the Managing Director of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, was going to be a keynote speaker, we made an e-introduction between Ralph and Kathleen Sullivan, Vice-President of Programs at Children First in Sarasota — our county’s Head Start and Early Head Start Provider. Kathleen and Ralph were able to find time at the conference to meet, share, and learn from each other, strengthening the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in the process. Here are some of Kathleen’s thoughts about the meeting.

– Beth Duda, Director  of Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading


Our discussion was wide ranging.  Among other topics, we discussed the importance of the Head Start Program, the New Head Start Standards, connections between and among health, mental health, and school readiness outcomes, as well as the 2Gen approach. Our conversation was underscored by our commitment to continued progress toward our aims across uncertain political landscapes.

We began our conversation with a bit of personal information sharing then moving forward into policy and program discussions. Ralph was interested in my trajectory from Head Start parent to Head Start Director.  I shared about my experiences both as a parent/participant in the program and as a staff member.  Notable in this discussion was the important role Head Start plays in preserving the language and culture of families while protecting child health and family systems.

As an example of Head Start’s role in this, I shared my experiences as a Head Start teacher working with refugee families in Maine.  There, I worked with families from many different countries and cultures.  Over 20 languages were spoken in our program. For some families, the intersection between cultural practices and American law was problematic.  Abuse and/or neglect charges sometimes separated children from their families.  Through a partnership with the Child Abuse and Neglect Council, I co-founded the Cross Cultural Family Network.  Our goal was to facilitate informed dialogue among civil servants, educators, and families from various cultures.  This network served as a catalyst for greater understanding among refugee families, and the institutions serving them.

The Cross Cultural Family Network is a ready example of the mission of Head Start.  The HS program works in partnership throughout communities to ensure family stability.  Where there are systems in place, we collaborate and refer.  Where there are no systems in place, we develop partnerships to meet the need. Such activity is clearly articulated in the principles that guide the EHS | HS program.

Ralph talked about poverty in the U.S. Health and its effects on educational outcomes; a key point to which he returned.  We discussed the comprehensive services model the Head Start program provides: requirements for health, mental health, and school readiness are clearly articulated in the Head Start Act and Performance Standards.  We discussed the gains made in Sarasota County regarding the recognition of the relationship between child health and educational outcomes.

Our conversation included the notion of toxic stress. Noting that a sustained increase in cortisol levels actually changes the brain’s architecture, we agreed that early intervention is essential for child health and educational outcomes.  We talked about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study. I shared information regarding Children First’s expanded mental health services and the overall framework for Head Start programs regarding such services.

Since Head Start and Early Head Start programs are mandated to address health, mental health and family goal setting toward self-sufficiency, Ralph noted that Head Start plays a critical role in low-income communities.  He stated that Head Start is on the front lines in the continuing war on poverty.

We discussed the 2 Generation approach as integral to effective programming and child outcomes.  I relayed some of my experiences as a Head Start parent who directly benefitted from the 2Gen approach.  This approach has been embedded in the Head Start standards for decades and is embraced by parents and staff.  It is an area for which we are fully funded.  So we feel prepared for, and excited about, the community dialogue regarding this approach.

We discussed the New Head Start Standards.  Ralph asked me about their impact, and what I thought would be most challenging for us. Concerns regarding the new standards and their effect on daily operations will vary across the nation, however, all Head Start programs will face challenges financially.  The new standards mandate expanded service duration.  (The number of hours we serve children annually must increase to 1380 hours for EHS and 1020 hours for HS.) Children First seeks to provide year-round service for our families under the new service model.  Our decision is based on our Community Needs Assessment which highlights consistent access to healthy foods, and summer learning loss as areas of concern to be addressed. While there is some funding for this expansion, there currently is not enough allocated to meet the new requirements.  To some degree, the mandates are unfunded.  Ralph noted that Head Start has been underfunded for years and that full funding for the program would be necessary in order for us to truly meet the needs of communities across the United States.

As I mentioned above, our conversation was wide-ranging. I’m sure I have not captured all of it.  It was an absolute pleasure to meet and become acquainted with Ralph.  What a gift to have someone so passionate leading this critically important work!

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