Keeping Pace

Photo of three smiling children in a Knoxville Head Start program.

Keeping Pace

For decades, Head Start programs have prepared disadvantaged young Knoxvillians for school. But a staffing shortage is leaving classrooms empty.

by jesse fox mayshark • May 3, 2023

Photo of three smiling children in a Knoxville Head Start program.

Children at a Knoxville Head Start center. (Photo courtesy of Head Start)

Barbara Kelly and Renee Hauge are happy to show off the sparkling new Head Start building on McSpadden Street in northwest Knoxville, on the edge of the Western Heights public housing complex.

A program that has lived on federal funding runs into the post-pandemic labor market.

“We’ve got this nice covered porch, which is lovely for when the weather’s bad,” Kelly said, stepping out into a shaded alcove that leads to one of the center’s outdoor play areas. The wooden play equipment was designed and built by the local Head Start program’s special projects coordinator.

A wide-eyed boy toddles over, waving hi. “What are you doing, what are you playing with?” Hauge greets him affectionately. The boy points at his new-looking plastic boots, which have animal eyes printed on them. 

“With your boots, playing with your boots,” Kelly says with a smile. The boy smiles back.

It’s the kind of friendly, gently educational scene that plays out hundreds of times a day at the seven Head Start centers across Knoxville, pre-school programs for ages 0 to 5 that are overseen by the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee.

But Kelly, CAC’s longtime executive director, and Hague, director of its Head Start program, are concerned about some recent challenges. Although it serves hundreds of children — 736 during the 2021-22 school year — it could serve even more if it could find and retain qualified staff.

“This center is open, we’ll keep it open,” Kelly said of the new Western Heights facility, which opened its offices last fall and just welcomed children in February. “But we do have 13 classes closed, and to have all of the wonderful opportunities that we have here and not be able to provide them to this group (who are) some of the neediest children and families in our community is particularly difficult.”

Kelly and Hauge are working on a funding proposal to present to the city and county later this year, seeking help with some of their operational costs so that they can offer higher, more competitive salaries.

It’s an unusual position for Head Start to be in. It is a creation of the federal government, an outgrowth of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative, and its funding is almost all federal as well. The program is free for families who qualify, which is based on income levels.

Since the 1970s, Head Start has grown from an eight-week program to prepare low-income children for kindergarten to a comprehensive pre-school educational program. In 1995, it launched Early Head Start, to serve ages birth to 3. 

CAC operates both regular Head Start and Early Head Start programs. At the Western Heights center, they are divided by floor level, with children under age 3 on the first floor and ages 3 and 4 upstairs.

The two are different in some key ways. The required adult-child ratio for the Early Head Start program is 1 to 4, meaning two adults in a room of eight children. For the 3- and 4-year-olds, the ratio is more than double, with a teacher and assistant for up to 17 children.

The educational requirements also differ — Early Head Start requires a child development associate (CDA) credential, while teachers in the regular 3-4 program must have a bachelor’s degree with pre-k certification.

The latter requirement is the largest cause of the local staffing shortage. Kelly and Hauge have enough teachers for their Early Head Start classrooms, but they are struggling at the upper level.

“All of our infant/toddler classes that are in our centers are open,” Hauge said, serving about 144 children. But for the 3- and 4-year-olds, the program is serving only about 62 percent of the 743 children it is funded for.

The biggest challenge is salary. A Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree and full certification will start at just under $36,000 a year, while the same teacher would start at about $43,000 at Knox County Schools, which has been expanding its own pre-school programs in recent years and hiring from the same credentialed pool.

In the tight labor market that has emerged after the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time Head Start is having a hard time competing.

“We have very good working conditions, we have excellent fringe benefits,” Kelly said. “So we were always very competitive. But it's this inability that we've had to really effectively deal with the post-COVID workforce issue.”

Head Start is a significant presence in local early education, which has lately been a major focus for United Way of Greater Knoxville.

“Head Start is a critical partner in the early care and education space,” said Ellie Kittrell, director of early care and education systems for UWGK. “The integrated approach that they take, the services that they provide families is very unique. It’s whole child-focused, they provide access to health, mental health, basic wellness services.”

Hauge said Head Start teachers even serve as bus drivers for their students, because often pick-up and drop-off are their best opportunities to get to know and talk to children’s parents and family members.

“Sometimes that's the only contact the teacher has with the family is on that bus, getting to see them face to face, being able to say to them, ‘This is the day that your child had,’ or ‘I have some concerns,’ or ‘This is what he learned today,’” Hauge said. “Just to have that relationship.”

Kelly said that local Head Start programs have a fair amount of leeway in how they structure themselves and offer services, and CAC is considering various options to be able to continue to offer services where they are most needed.

“One of the options that we're looking at is maybe some refocusing of the Head Start resource, and focusing it more on the early programs,” she said. “And more on the comprehensive Family Development aspects of providing services to families with young children.”