New director of Kansas Head Start Association hopes to educate public, work with business

Erick Vaughn isn’t a schoolteacher, but educating the public is at the top of his priority list.

Vaughn will take the helm of the Kansas Head Start Association as executive director on Aug. 1. The organization represents 29 Head Start and Early Head Start programs across the state.

One of Vaughn’s goals is to increase awareness among community members and business leaders about the benefits of these programs.

“Anybody who works with families and children knows the importance,” he said. “We’re trying not to just preach to the choir.”

Head Start is a federally funded program best known for the education services it provides for low-income children through age 5. But Vaughn said it’s more than that.

“So many people out there still look at Head Start and think it’s day care,” he said. “Head Start is high-quality, research-based education, and it’s also wraparound services for the entire family of the child, with the purpose of getting a family out of poverty.”

Head Start staffers visit families in their homes and give them advice and information about programs to help mitigate the risk of abuse, mental health issues and physical health problems that are often associated with living in poverty, Vaughn said.

“People don’t realize the impact that has on a community,” Vaughn said.

“It’s hard to quantify.”

That difficulty presents a challenge for Vaughn and his colleagues as they try promote their programs in the face of decreased federal and state spending. To magnify their voice, Vaughn said, the Kansas Head Start Association has partnered with other early childhood advocacy groups to persuade state and federal lawmakers to maintain their current budgets.

“A cut or change to one early childhood program affects all of us,” Vaughn said.

This year’s federal sequester necessitated a 10 percent cut to Head Start’s budget. The cuts mean 425 fewer low-income children in Kansas will have a place inside Head Start classrooms, and their families will not receive the health, nutrition and parenting services that accompany a classroom education.

Vaughn said his agency plans to release more data in the coming weeks on the impact sequestration has had on Head Start programs statewide.

In the face of these cuts, Vaughn said he has two reasons for building partnerships with statewide businesses: to magnify his agency’s voice in legislative halls and to help struggling Head Start centers stay open with financial and in-kind donations.

“Once businesses and community members get engaged with us, once they see what we’re doing, they become champions and advocates for us,” he said. “And these people often have more clout than we do at the policy level.”

In addition to financial support, Vaughn said businesses can provide valuable services to Head Start programs. For example, he said banks could sponsor free financial literacy classes for parents or put on leadership development clinics for Head Start staff members.