LIFESTYLE

Head Start preschools aim to fight poverty, but their teachers struggle to make ends meet

Mar 2, 2024, 9:05 PM

Doris Milton, 63, stands for a portrait at the Bethel New Life holistic wellness center Thursday, F...

Doris Milton, 63, stands for a portrait at the Bethel New Life holistic wellness center Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Chicago. In some ways, Doris Milton is a Head Start success story. A student in one of Chicago's inaugural Head Start classes, when the federally-funded early education program was in its infancy. Milton followed in her teacher's footsteps, now a Head Start teacher in Chicago, but after more than four decades on the job, Milton, 63, earns $22 an hour. It's a wage that puts her above the federal poverty line, but she is far from financially secure. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WASHINGTON (AP) — In some ways, Doris Milton is a Head Start success story. She was a student in one of Chicago’s inaugural Head Start classes, when the antipoverty program, which aimed to help children succeed by providing them a first-rate preschool education, was in its infancy.

Milton loved her teacher so much that she decided to follow in her footsteps. She now works as a Head Start teacher in Chicago.

After four decades on the job, Milton, 63, earns $22.18 an hour. Her pay puts her above the poverty line, but she is far from financially secure. She needs a dental procedure she cannot afford, and she is paying down $65,000 of student loan debt from National Louis University, where she came within two classes of getting her bachelor’s degree. She dropped out in 2019 when she fell ill.

“I’m trying to meet their needs when nobody’s meeting mine,” Milton said of teaching preschoolers.

Head Start teachers — raise their pay, but Congress has no plans to expand the Head Start budget.

Many have left the job — about one in five teachers turned over in 2022 — for higher-paying positions at restaurants or in retail. But if Head Start centers are required to raise teacher pay without additional money, operators say they would have to cut how many kids they serve.

The Biden administration says the program is already turning kids away because so many teachers have left, and not enough workers are lining up to take their places. And officials say it does not make sense for an anti-poverty program, where people of color make up 60% of the workforce, to underpay its employees.

“We have some teachers who are making poverty wages themselves, which undermines the original intent of the program,” said Katie Hamm, a deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Early Childhood Development.

Head Start, created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” serves some of the neediest children, including those who are homeless, in foster care or come from households falling below the federal poverty line. With child care prices exceeding college tuition in many states, Head Start is the only option within financial reach for many families.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program, estimates a pay hike would not have a huge effect on the number of children served because so many programs already struggle to staff all their classrooms. Altogether, Head Start programs receive enough funding to cover the costs of 755,000 slots. But many programs can’t fully enroll because they don’t have enough teachers. It’s why the department estimates only about 650,000 of those slots are getting filled.

The proposed change would force Head Start programs to downsize permanently because they would not be able to afford as many teachers.

That worries Head Start leaders, even though many of them back raising pay for their employees, said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director for the National Head Start Association. The association asked the Biden administration to allow some programs to opt out of the requirements.

“We love this idea, but it’s going to cost money,” Sheridan said. “And we don’t see Congress appropriating that money overnight.”

While a massive cash infusion does not appear forthcoming, other solutions have been proposed.

On Monday, the Biden administration published a letter urging school districts to direct more of the federal money they receive toward early learning, including Head Start.

On Thursday, U.S. Reps. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., and Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., filed a bill that would allow Head Start to hire community college students who are working toward their associate degrees in child development.

The stakes are perhaps highest for rural Head Starts. A program outside of Anchorage, Alaska, is closing one of its five sites while struggling with a shortage of workers. Program director Mark Lackey said the heart-wrenching decision allowed him to raise pay for the remaining workers in hopes of reducing staff turnover.

“It hurts, and we don’t want to do it,” Lackey said. “But at the same time, it feels like it’s kind of necessary.”

Overall, his program has cut nearly 100 slots because of a staffing shortage. And the population he serves is high-need: About half the children are homeless or in foster care. The Biden proposal could force the program to contract further.

Amy Esser, the executive director of Mercer County Head Start in rural western Ohio, said it’s been difficult to attract candidates to fill a vacant teaching position because of the low pay. Starting pay at Celina City Schools is at least $5,000 more than at Head Start, and the jobs require the same credentials.

But she warned hiking teacher pay could have disastrous consequences for her program, and for the broader community, which has few child care options for low-income households.

“We would be cut to extinction,” Esser wrote in a letter to the Biden administration, “leaving children and families with little to no opportunity for a safe, nurturing environment to achieve school readiness.”

Arlisa Gilmore, a longtime Head Start teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said if it were up to her, she would not sacrifice any slots to raise teacher pay. She makes $25 an hour and acknowledges she’s lucky: She collects rental income from a home she owns and shares expenses with her husband. The children in her classroom are not so fortunate.

“I don’t think they should cut classrooms,” Gilmore said. “We have a huge community of children that are in poverty in my facility.”

Milton, the Chicago teacher, wonders why there has to be such a difficult trade-off at all.

“Why can’t it be, ‘Let’s help both’? Why do we got to pick and choose?” Milton said. “Do we not deserve that? Don’t the kids deserve that?”

___

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

Lifestyle

Associated Press

Her dying husband worried she’d have money troubles. Then she won the lottery

FREEPORT, Pa. (AP) — In the weeks before his death, Karen Coffman’s husband worried she might have money troubles after he was gone. But two weeks before he died in April of complications from a brain tumor, the Pennsylvania woman bought a scratch-off state lottery ticket that netted her $1 million. “When I told him […]

1 day ago

Associated Press

You don’t think corn dogs are haute cuisine? These chefs, using alligator sausage, beg to differ.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Stefani De Palma, an award-winning chef and head of the a team vying to represent the Americas in a French culinary competition in January, knew she wanted her team’s work to feature flavors of her native California. The challenge at the Bocuse d’Or Americas competition this week in New Orleans was […]

2 days ago

Associated Press

High school president writes notes thanking fellow seniors — 180 of them

Emily Post would be proud. A high school class president in Massachusetts who gave a commencement speech wanted to recognize all of his fellow graduates. So he wrote them personal thank-you notes presented at the ceremony — 180 to be exact. “I wish I could’ve acknowledged you all, but there was simply not enough time,” […]

3 days ago

Associated Press

Silicon Valley-backed voter plan for new California city qualifies for November ballot

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A Silicon Valley-backed initiative to build a green city for up to 400,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area has qualified for the Nov. 5 ballot, elections officials said Tuesday. Solano County’s registrar of voters said in a statement that the office verified a sufficient sampling of signatures. California Forever, […]

4 days ago

Associated Press

New York considers regulating what children see in social media feeds

New York lawmakers on Tuesday said they were finalizing legislation that would allow parents to block their children from getting social media posts curated by a platform’s algorithm, a move to rein in feeds that critics argue keep young users glued to their screens. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia James have been […]

11 days ago

Associated Press

New Orleans plans to spiff up as host of next year’s Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans hosts its 11th Super Bowl next year and the preparations involve showcasing the city’s heralded architecture, music, food and celebratory culture while addressing its myriad challenges, including crime, pockets of homelessness and an antiquated drainage system. Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry joined Mayor LaToya Cantrell and a host of other […]

11 days ago

Head Start preschools aim to fight poverty, but their teachers struggle to make ends meet