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‘We are ringing the alarm’: Head Start report highlights workforce crisis

Earlier this month, as thousands of early childhood educators and advocates gathered in Baltimore for the Head Start 2022 annual national conference, attendees exchanged first-hand testimonies and anecdotes from the field, sharing what the last two years have been for them and what it’s like now.

Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association (NHSA), a non-profit advocacy and professional support organization for Head Start, has heard stories about how difficult it is to be in early childhood education in this moment. And it’s not because of COVID-19 – not directly, anyway. This is because many programs find themselves in the throes of a staffing crisis, due to high turnover and low salaries, two issues that the profession faced long before the pandemic and which made it virtually impossible to keep classrooms full and doors open consistently.

The NHSA surveyed about 900 conference attendees and the results, published in a recently released report, confirm what Sheridan heard pass between educators: conditions primarily to blame.

About 260,000 educators work for Head Start, a federally funded program that, along with Early Head Start, provides early care and education to more than 800,000 infants, toddlers and children from low-income families. Like the entire early childhood workforce, Head Start’s staff are mostly women, and mostly women of color, Sheridan says. And their average salary puts them among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, hovering between $11 and $12 an hour.

The issue of wages has been around for a long time, but now, as school systems and private sector employers raise wages to be more competitive in the labor market and to deal with rising inflation, many early childhood educators left their jobs for better opportunities. Child care providers and early childhood educators left behind suffer.

According to participants surveyed at the NHSA conference in early May, about 30% of staff positions in Head Start programs are currently vacant, and 90% of respondents said they have closed classrooms in their programs either permanently or temporarily. due to a lack of staff. .

“Hearing that the programs had to do that was, I think, particularly concerning,” Sheridan says. “And there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. That’s the biggest worry of all of this.

The vast majority – 85% – of respondents said staff turnover is higher today than in a typical year, a trend that has persisted in early childhood education since the start of the pandemic .

The main reason identified by respondents for this recruitment and retention problem is remuneration, followed by difficult working conditions and the availability of better professional opportunities.

Many head teachers in Head Start programs, for example, would be qualified to work in a K-12 public school system, where job openings abound and salaries are considerably higher.

The median salary for elementary school teachers in the United States is more than $60,000 per year, compared to Head Start teachers, whose hourly salary equates to around $34,000 per year.

Even educators who love the field of early childhood and are dedicated to working with young children find it hard to justify these numbers.

But it’s not just school systems. A West Virginia Head Start executive who responded to the NHSA survey wrote that a popular gas station chain called Sheetz can offer nearly double what Head Start can offer in her area.

“Our state minimum wage is $8.75, which is also the typical starting salary for Head Start staff,” the West Virginia leader wrote. “A full-time job at $8.75 is well below the federal poverty level. It’s no surprise that workers choose other options that better support their own families. Locally, Sheetz pays $15 an hour with a $3,000 signing bonus, and school districts pay teachers double what we can afford to pay.

The NHSA report noted that many entry-level jobs in the private sector now start at $15 an hour. The Target chain of stores now offers starting salaries at $24 an hour. Costco also pays nearly half of its employees over $25 an hour. Short of an industry-wide panacea, how can the industry compete with these salaries?

“We need a major systemic overhaul and very specific investments and actions,” insists Sheridan. “Or else we’re going to lose the gold standard, which is Head Start. We are very proud to play this role [as gold standard]but if we can’t keep the classrooms open because we can’t pay the staff enough…we’re sounding the alarm.

“It’s something that can honestly be solved and something we think should be solved,” he adds, but notes that he doesn’t see a way out of this crisis that doesn’t involve more of federal funding for Head Start and indeed the broader field of early childhood education. Sheridan and his colleagues are asking Congress to approve an additional $2.5 billion a year for Head Start, to address systemic issues including insufficient pay.

“There’s no way to fix the system without additional dollars,” Sheridan points out. “We can rearrange the chairs, but there’s no way to make this job attractive without relying on people to do it wholeheartedly.”

If no solution arrives, Sheridan predicts that Head Start will soon serve far fewer children in the United States and disappear completely from entire communities.

Head Start’s research-backed success hinges on its people, he explains, and sadly, people may soon learn that the hard way.

“You can have a great program and state-of-the-art facilities,” he says, “but if you don’t have a workforce that feels valued and compensated, Head Start won’t be able to have it.” impact we’ve had over the years.

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