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    three boys running down a grassy hill

    More than an Education

    An interview with Yasmina Vinci

    Yasmina Vinci

    February 7, 2020
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    Yasmina Vinci is executive director of the National Head Start Association, which advocates to policymakers and the public in support of Head Start. Vinci spoke with Plough’s Dana Wiser about early childhood education, confronting poverty and racism, and her own surprising path to this vocation.

    Plough: So, what is Head Start?

    Yasmina Vinci: Head Start is a federally funded early childhood program, aimed at helping the neediest kids prepare for success in academics and in life. Kids from birth to age five are eligible, if they live at or below the federal poverty level. There are around seventeen hundred Head Start agencies, which serve more than a million children a year. Eighty percent of those served are three- and four-year-olds, and the rest are babies, toddlers, and pregnant moms.

    Head Start is about more than just education, though. The program helps families address other challenges that go with poverty, like health and dental care, nutrition, and housing. We help families reach their own goals; the point is to break the generational cycle of poverty. As well as educating their children, we help parents with jobs. These are people from the community who just require a little more support and additional mentoring.

    three boys running down a grassy hill

    Photograph by Jordan Whitt (public domain)

    What is the political story of Head Start?

    Well, it was founded in the sixties. The Vietnam War was tearing the country apart; the generational divide was tearing families apart. But one thing that brought people together was Head Start. Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty", and Head Start was part of the “Great Society” – a series of programs aimed at improving the living conditions of poor people in America.

    Since then, Head Start has always enjoyed bipartisan support. George H. W. Bush hugely increased the funding for Head Start. So did President Trump, for that matter. And in the Senate, Bernie Sanders (a former Head Start teacher) has worked to increase funding.

    But Head Start has also run into controversy.

    There’s always something that threatens our work – right now there is a campaign to lower the income level at which you’re eligible for Head Start, which is already very low.

    Also, at this point, Head Start has over $10 billion in annual funding, and governors would love to have access to those funds. The federal funds go directly to local organizations – they could be schools, churches, or clinics – and some people object to that. The founders of Head Start safeguarded the funding stream that way because in certain regions, for example, people wouldn’t have wanted little black kids to be educated. That racism is still not eradicated. It has a new face and a new tone, but it’s still there.

    It’s so important to remind people of how much resistance there was in the early days of the program. There are anecdotes about it – an African-American gentleman once told us that his mother, who was a maid, was fired because she sent her son to Head Start. Head Start took her in and she ended up becoming a director.

    Community Playthings, the Bruderhof company that makes children’s toys and furniture, was touched by that resistance, right?

    Community Playthings provided equipment to one of the early Head Start programs in Mississippi, where Head Start was closely identified with the civil rights movement. There was a drive-by shooting at the site, attacking the teachers and kids. Polly Greenberg, who started the program in Mississippi, wrote about it in her book, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes.

    Some toys and furniture were hit by bullets. Polly told me she sent them to the White House, so Lyndon Johnson could see for himself.

    President Johnson was always committed to Head Start. Everybody told him, “Start small.” And he said “No, we’re going to do it big from the start.” Half a million kids. That raised a fervor to get things done quickly.

    But there’s always political pushback. Today, to prevent Head Start from being part of a polarized political landscape, we try to talk to different people about different aspects of Head Start that they can connect with. There are people who appreciate Head Start’s commitment to civil rights, social justice, and ending poverty. There are others who connect with Head Start’s educational commitments. And there’s a third group who appreciate Head Start as an engine of innovation. Ed Zigler, one of our founders, called Head Start a laboratory for early childhood.

    How did you end up doing this?

    I grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. I had an intense dislike of the Communist regime – in high school, I was once summoned by the secret police. Your heart just goes in your mouth, because some people don’t come out! They questioned me about a dinner that my family had with a foreign colleague of my father’s. And what was really spooky was that that restaurant was almost empty at the time. So the fact that they knew that we were there, and they knew who we were, that somebody was watching … I knew that if I ever got out, I didn’t want to go back.

    I also had a great deal of intellectual curiosity. During university, I went to study Arabic in Egypt, where I met some young Americans. They’d brought books – Profiles in Courage, Robert Frost poetry – and I just devoured them. I got this sense that I had to come to the United States and get a liberal arts education.

    It was difficult to get an exit visa, but I was extremely focused on my goal. I finally obtained permission to pursue further study in the US. My American friends helped me get a scholarship to Grinnell College in Iowa. In Yugoslavia, children were expected to stay and take care of their parents. But out of their great love, my parents let me go. My father said, “This is no life.”

    TwirlingGirlBWEmbed

    Photograph by Scott Higdon (public domain)

    That’s remarkable. Did you see them again?

    Oh yes. That’s probably more than you wanted to know –

    No it’s beautiful, it’s the human story behind where you sit today.

    It truly is! So at Grinnell, somebody organized a trip to a children’s mental hospital. Interacting with those children, it struck me that I needed to do something. In Yugoslavia, families took care of children who were vulnerable – for all the oppression, there wasn’t this institutional horror. I figured there had to be a better way.

    After college, I stayed home to raise my children. When the kids were a little older, I started teaching. I worked in development for another early childhood center, and then I helped lead a national early childhood education organization. And then, ten years ago, I was hired to turn NHSA around. The organization was in turmoil and it had lost credibility. The turnaround part wasn’t that difficult. But I fell in love with the work of Head Start, and dedicated myself to making sure that Head Start persists as a national commitment.

    Let’s talk about that credibility – the infamous “fade-out effect.”

    Sure. Some studies have suggested that the positive effects of being in Head Start fade after third grade. But a host of other studies show the opposite. One researcher, Tim Bartik, studied kids from a program in Ypsilanti, Michigan (one of the first communities to launch Head Start), and found that while there was a dip in positive effects by third grade, after that, kids bounced back, and there were significant, positive long-term effects.

    Chloe Gibbs, an economist at Notre Dame, has found that Head Start kids are more likely to graduate from high school and college than other kids with similar disadvantages. Head Start graduates don’t smoke as much as other people in their socioeconomic group, and they aren’t incarcerated as much. They’re also less likely to remain in poverty.

    What do Head Start kids go on to do?

    Well, there are 35 million people who have been through Head Start – that’s 10 percent of the United States population.

    And they are everywhere. Darren Walker, the head of the Ford Foundation, was a Head Start child, and he talks fondly about how somebody talked his mother into sending him. Sylvia Acevedo, the head of the Girl Scouts, is another one – she came from a barrio in New Mexico, got a graduate degree from Stanford, and became a rocket scientist. I was recently in Dayton, Ohio, and they introduced us to the four winners of the Bill Gates United Negro College Fund scholarships, all Head Start kids. Wherever they are, Head Start graduates distinguish themselves, even by the way they interact with people.

    The work of Head Start is so important, and we know that it produces results. I really do have faith in the strength of the model, in the people who do the work, and in all the people who have been through it – in the whole community.

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    Contributed By Yasmina Vinci

    Yasmina Vinci is executive director of the National Head Start Association, which advocates to policymakers and the public in support of Head Start.

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