Teacher shortage at Growing Futures, the Head Start program in Overland Park, is creating a domino effect on vulnerable children and families

The Growing Futures Early Education Center in Overland Park faces a serious shortage of teachers.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic strikes in March 2020, the non-profit organization via Head Start usually had one or two vacancies to fill. Growing Futures now has eight unfilled teaching positions.

For Terrie VanZandt-Travis, Executive Director of Growing Futures, the potential reasons for a shortage of early childhood educators go far beyond the stress and uncertainties brought about by the global pandemic: a lack of competitive pay and responsibilities. Additional demands on educators (especially during the pandemic) compounded the problem.

“This has developed in the field of early learning for a long time,” said VanZandt-Travis. “Even before COVID, there were problems. And a lot of the problems… is that our culture, our country, has to come to terms with: Early education is valuable. But if we don’t take care of the people who do the work, the high level of results children can achieve will be affected.

With a shortage of eight teachers, everyone at Growing Futures had to step in and help. But this great shortage means that some classrooms, which require two teachers each, must become virtual or “hybrid” (half in person, half virtual).

“Our staff care passionately about the mission, they care passionately about the children, they want to be here,” VanZandt-Travis added. “But they are tired. It’s hard.”

At the service of “vulnerable” children and families

“When you have a time in society where fewer people want to stay in education… now we’re all really competing against each other to find the staff to take care of the precious children. Combine that with you are in a pandemic… it’s just exhausting, ”said Terrie VanZandt-Travis, Executive Director of Growing Futures.

The Head Start program serves vulnerable children from birth to age 5 and their families as well as pregnant women in Johnson County. By “vulnerable” it could mean that children and families face trauma or hardship such as financial hardship or poverty, homelessness or learning disabilities.

Growing Futures works on solutions to the teacher shortage, for example by offering more competitive remuneration. VanZandt-Travis said taking care of his teachers and making sure they are doing well was also essential for the nonprofit to function successfully and for children and their families to thrive in the program.

Some classrooms have gone virtual, but Growing Futures staff strive to connect the 223 children they serve with the resources they need. Photo courtesy of Growing Futures.

Growing Futures was established in 1965 with 17 preschoolers. The non-profit organization prepares children for kindergarten in the Shawnee Mission School District and provides a variety of social services and resources such as health care, English language and mental wellness therapy, between others.

Today, Growing Future serves 223 children, with an average waiting list of 125 children. There is a physical lack of space and a lack of funding to support these children, VanZandt-Travis added.

All Growing Future families live at 100% of the federal poverty line. For a family of three, that’s just under $ 22,000 a year, VanZandt-Travis said. But the living wage in Johnson County is closer to $ 60,000 per year for a family of three, presenting a gap for what families need to live here.

Meanwhile, Growing Futures must raise $ 415,000 each year to match a Head Start grant and be in line with Head Start – and raise even more just to pay the bills and keep costs down. This means that Head Start funding is not enough to support teacher salary increases.

“When you have a time in society where fewer people want to stay in education… now we’re all really competing against each other to find the staff to take care of the precious children,” VanZandt said. -Travis. “Combine that with the fact that you’re in a pandemic… it’s just exhausting. “

“I didn’t miss a thing”

Terrie VanZandt-Travis said she was proud of the teachers for their hard work in serving their children.

Even facing the teacher shortage, VanZandt-Travis said she was extremely proud of the teachers at the education center.

“During all of this, our staff has not wavered,” said VanZandt-Travis. “We’ve all been through a bit of fear; these guys haven’t missed a beat. In March 2020, the center closed its doors and switched to virtual learning, with teachers using their personal devices to connect with children.

Growing Futures families have income eligible for a subsidy for child care through the Kansas Department for Children and Families. But state regulations at the time required children to be physically in the building.

At the time, they faced a budget deficit of $ 36,000 per month during the shutdown, until it reopened in June 2020. But donations and grants helped Growing Futures stay afloat at the end of the year. last year with virtual fundraising, COVID relief, and other measures.

Teachers like Miss Kelly (above) have gone virtual, but technology has allowed them to develop better relationships with parents and families.

“At the end [of 2020]we were still able to get out even, ”Jessica Hoffman, Director of Development and Community Relations. “We got really creative. “

When the center returned from a brief closure and returned the children to classrooms in June 2020, they faced all of the uncertainties that other early childhood educators and teachers faced over the following months. . Young children they welcome from birth to age 5 are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccination.

“When we first reopened, I can imagine standing here in this hallway, actually,” VanZandt-Travis said. “Miss Rachel, one of our first Head Start teachers, leaned over to talk to a child. She had put on her mask. The child at the time did not and coughed in his face. Think about where our heads were all back at that time. Miss Rachel didn’t miss a beat, gave her a hug, continued her work. This stuff takes me.

Here are other success stories:

  • Miss Sheila has four of her children climbing on her, their masks all askew and some with runny noses and coughs. She doesn’t miss a thing.
  • Miss Kiki teaches her toddlers that our skin can be different colors, but our hearts are the same.
  • Miss Kelly built a better dialogue with parents during the pandemic

Miss Kelly, a 19-year-old teacher at Growing Futures who just went virtual again because she doesn’t have a second teacher in the classroom, said technology, especially texting, has allowed her to bond more deep with parents and children.

“It means a lot,” Kelly said. “I actually have a better relationship with them now, going through this (pandemic).”

Growing Futures focuses on the health and well-being of the children and families they serve, said VanZandt-Travis. When they hear about struggling parents and families – especially in recent times when some have faced layoffs and tragedies like a house on fire – they do what they can to connect families to resources and keep classrooms open as much as possible.

However, some classrooms and even the entire building had to close and go virtual after exposures to COVID-19 and other illnesses affected the programming. This can be disastrous for children whose families need to work and cannot supervise them, or for children in uncertain situations outside of Growing Futures.

“One mother said, ‘I understand, I understand, but now I have to quit my job,'” said VanZandt-Travis. “And that’s what hurts. Because that’s what we’re here for, it’s to help these families not to be in poverty. We all suffer for our families.

Click on here to view employment opportunities at Growing Futures.

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