New Head Start programs earn boost

By Thomas Pardee

Columbia’s Harris Center for Early Childhood Education is about to lend a helping hand to 10 community Head Start programs, thanks to a generous grant from the McCormick Foundation.

The ECE has been awarded $600,000 to be used for “The Relay,” an 18-month pilot program aimed at improving professional development training for educational coordinators at various Head Start centers in Chicago.

Karen Haigh, project manager and faculty member in Columbia’s ECE department, was handpicked by the McCormick Foundation and the Chicago Department of Children and Youth Services to both help write the grant proposal and eventually direct the initiative.

Haigh, who was in the process of transferring to Columbia from Governor’s State University when she started with Relay in May, had already successfully fostered a professional development program at the Chicago Commons Head Start program, where she worked for 16 years.

“It isn’t something you can do in a year,” Haigh said. “A good program has to be constructed and implemented over time and involves collaboration, planning, reflection and dialogue.”

Haigh said the grant was aimed at improving professional development through the “reflective practice” method, which is the process by which teachers and administrators study their own teaching methods to better understand their decision-making. Haigh said this self-awareness allows educators to ultimately be better teachers and have a more positive effect on students.

“It’s about paying more attention to the process of teaching,” Haigh said. “Teachers who follow the reflective practice approach become more in-depth and thoughtful about what they’re doing.”

Each Head Start program will receive about $20,000 to sponsor its own individual professional development initiative, plus an additional $3,500 to participate in a conference, seminar or institute related to its program, Haigh said. She said each program will get to choose how those problems are addressed, because its own members are best acquainted with their own issues.

Participating programs will also meet bi-weekly with Relay’s representatives so their initiatives get the support they need to succeed. ECE director Carol Ann Stowe said a constant dialogue between Relay staff and Head Start coordinators is key in keeping their efforts afloat.

“Very often teachers and administrators begin [a new project like Relay] with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but if they don’t have the support and the follow-through from others, they can lose focus,” Stowe said. “This grant is to give them that support. We need to be responsive to what their needs are.”

Deborah Holdstein, dean of Columbia’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the Relay program is on the right track to serving the needs of Chicago Public School students at the core of the problem.

“This is exactly the kind of grassroots-level work that helps change the lives of students that are involved with highly committed teachers,” Holdstein said.

She compared the initiative’s mission to the words of Jonathan Kozol, a noted educator, activist and writer who spoke to the college as part of creative nonfiction week on Oct. 20. Kozol advocates a less standardized and much more considerate approach to teaching than is common in most states—an approach Holdstein said should start at the core.

“[Reflective practice] is the essence of the kinds of things that Kozol talks about,” Holdstein said. “It’s about looking at the whole child, giving that child a deep, comprehensive learning experience that still manages to emphasize standards and quality. It has to keep the excitement and the joy of learning intact.”

Haig said the program will start next month and take place at several Head Start locations still to be determined. She said because it’s a pilot program, Relay’s outcome—which she said will likely be “qualitative, not quantitative”—will be tough to gauge.

Stowe said the results will likely be worth the investment, if only because it will get people thinking more.

“There’s a lot to be learned by all of us,” she said.