A Talk with Jane Ervin: CEO of One of the Most Successful Head Start Programs in the US

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I recently sat down to talk with Jane Ervin, the current CEO of Lehigh Valley’s Community Services for Children. They currently host the Head Start program in the area, one of the top 40 in the country. When Jane started with the NGO in 2007, the poverty rate for children in the Lehigh Valley was 20%. It has risen to 26% in just a few short years, and contributed to the shrinking economy.

The program itself, as most other charitable programs and organizations, is under heavy scrutiny by the government. Each Head Start program is reviewed every three years. If it does not meet the standards, the NGO will be forced to recompete for the money allotted to the program in their area. Their money will be taken away and US$5 million will be given to the NGO that wants to start the Head Start program in that community. According to Jane, there are training centers throughout the US that can provide assistance to the faltering programs, focusing on Early Head Start, Program Management, Community Engagement, and other areas. Jane and I did not get into detail on the effectiveness of these centers. Perhaps that is a conversation to be had later.

Jane’s ideal path for the increased investment in early childhood education lies with businesses. She first discussed the history of Bethlehem, the transforming culture and increased need for specialized employees. When Bethlehem Steel was in operation, only a high school degree was needed to ensure a living wage and the ability to send children to college. The Steel plant closed and jobs have become much more technical. Now there is an adjustment period, a similar scenario to other areas across the US.

Workers-at-Bethlehem-Steel-in-early-1900s

As noted in my previous blog on the Head Start Program, research tells of the tremendous value of early childhood education. Yet, we have to question why there is little investment in it. Businesses are focusing on the technical training required to fulfill their positions. Fewer and fewer are able to meet the requirements to begin this type of technical training and the jobs are either being sent to other countries or employees from overseas are coming to the US to do jobs we can’t. Jane proposes the more efficient solution of growing our own labor force. Her goal is to help businesses see the connection between early childhood education and the employees that will need to be hired in 15 or 20 years. She advocates for tailoring the education to meet the specific needs of a particular community and the businesses within that community.

While this may be beneficial for the businesses and the economy of that particular area, where is the choice for children and their families? Where is the equal playing field? If students are prepared for a specific job from a young age, what other choice will they have? What if they decide that isn’t where they want to be?

It’s an interesting debate I think, one we can look at cross-culturally. Universities within the US are filled with students studying in unpractical fields with no clue what to do after graduation. In a way, a great deal of our youth is lost because they are given too much freedom. In a country where you can “be whatever you want to be,” how do you decide? In China, social roles and college majors are chosen for the youth and futures are clearly defined. Are the Chinese finding more satisfaction out of life just because they feel they are fulfilling their predetermined niche in society?

As Head Start prides itself as a high quality childcare program, Jane is naturally an advocate for all children to have this available to them. In addition to suggesting the businesses invest long-term in their future employees, she also suggests these local businesses encourage their employees to seek out high-quality childcare for their children. Day cares and babysitters are not always enough. Parents are unable to identify and seek out high quality childcare and may be unaware of the long-term benefits. Perhaps she sees the connection between an understanding of the benefits of high-quality childcare and the willingness to invest in it. Her forerunner in the evaluation of a childcare program is Keystone S.T.A.R.S.. They rank the programs on a 1-4 star scale. As the S.T.A.R.S. scale has the potential to make a childcare program more marketable to families, there are no direct repercussions to the program for not being evaluated.

On the local level, Jane’s ideas have potential. For businesses to succeed, they need quality employees. What then is the role of the government? Should it not be ensuring children’s education reach the level needed to partake in the student’s choice of training, vocational or higher education programs? Is the goal of this nation to make money through the success of their businesses and economy is the goal for everyone to have the equal opportunity to find their own success?

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