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Wake County Smart Start director talks about the decision to start a ThreeSchool program

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In August, Wake County Smart Start welcomed its inaugural class of ThreeSchool students. ThreeSchool is a high-quality preschool program designed specifically for 3-year-olds. More than 75% of Wake County’s ThreeSchool students come from households that are at or below the federal poverty level. Gayle Headen, the executive director of Wake County Smart Start, tells EdNC how and why the ThreeSchool program was started. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

EdNC: Walk me down the path that led you to starting Wake ThreeSchool.

Headen: So our goal is to ensure that at least 85% of income-eligible 4-year-olds are served in pre-K. That was a milestone that we had established, and in 2020 we achieved that milestone. The county commissioners felt that we had hit our goal to serve virtually every family who wanted a seat for their child in pre-K. Coming off of the heels of that excitement, one evening while I was in Harris Teeter with my husband, my phone rang, and on the caller ID I saw that the call was coming in from chairperson Matt Calabria. And so he really wanted to talk about that celebration, and then asked me, “So Gayle, what’s next?” These are commissioners who are committed to the prosperity of all families in Wake County. So he really pushed me, he wanted to do what’s right for children and families living in poverty in Wake County. In spite of all the vast prosperity, he knows not everyone shares that reality. And he knows that poverty is not destiny, not if the commissioners can intervene. So there was the opportunity. We talked about expanding access to 3-year-olds in a program similar to pre-K. He got it and was immediately on board. He championed the idea with the commissioners and rallied them. Within six weeks, he announced at a press conference that they were going to fund a pilot program serving 3-year-olds in high-quality classrooms.

EdNC: How many ThreeSchool classrooms do you have, how many teachers work in them, and how many students do they serve? 

Headen: In our pilot year, we have eight classrooms in private child care centers across the county. The way we identified those eight sites was we looked at where the applications were coming in from and we matched the locations of the private child care center sites to where the majority of the applicants live because we want to minimize the travel that families experience. We were thinking initially five sites, but that just did not prove to serve the need. There are 13 teachers, eight lead teachers and five teacher assistants. When we were conceptualizing it, we said up to 100 slots for students, and all 100 slots were filled. We had 800-plus applicants, and they all qualified for the program.

EdNC: Why do you think it’s important for Smart Start to offer ThreeSchools?

Headen: First, we all know the brain science — that this is a critical period where rapid rate development is occurring. And we know the statistics that with earlier, formal involvement with children, they perform better in school, they stay in school longer, they are more likely to attend college, make higher earnings, lead healthier lives, and give back to the community. Children who participate in programs like this are more successful in life overall. The second reason is there was this opportunity to serve 3-year-olds. Head Start serves 3- and 4-year-olds in Wake County. It’s federally funded, and the seats are limited. They serve approximately 250 children, and there’s just no additional capacity. The day after I talked to Chair Calabria, I called my colleague at Head Start to say, “Hey, this is moving fast. Are you on board?” And she was like, “Yeah, we need this.” There are more than 3,000 income-eligible children in this county. Imagine the opportunity to nurture the learning potential of thousands of children!

And then reason number three, it’s the mission of Wake County Smart Start to ensure that children are prepared for success in school and life, so it is our responsibility to step in where there are gaps to create and satisfy opportunities. We know early childhood. We are the county’s lead agency in this space. We have the relationships in the community to pull experts together like parents, community members, practitioners, and many others to develop a program. We have expertise in conducting community assessments and using data to inform our decisions. And we know how to partner with the childcare providers.

EdNC: What do you want education stakeholders to know about ThreeSchool programs in North Carolina?

Headen: That it’s one of the smartest investments that you can make in your community. It’s upwards of a 13% return on investment when you invest in early education programs. And you improve upon that when you give a child two years of preparation before they go to kindergarten. There are benefits in the kindergarten classroom, when children arrive at kindergarten ready. When I say ready, I’m saying ready for the classroom experience, knowing how to wait their turn, how to show empathy, how to help others, how to self-regulate. A kindergarten teacher can focus on moving them along, scaffolding them along the other skills that a kindergarten teacher is there to do. The benefits of it are just irrefutable. It is really about a choice that each community has to make — do we really not only value children, but to what extent do we want our community to benefit? Because the community benefits immediately and in the long run.

EdNC: What keeps you up at night about early care and education in North Carolina?

Headen: Poor compensation for early educators. Low pay is wrong, and it is no longer sustainable. Before the pandemic, teachers found a way to deal with low pay. It was difficult, but they managed. But now it’s a super crisis. Teachers will no longer tolerate the pay and are making different career choices. They have left the field entirely, choosing to work for Amazon, Target, and pretty much anyone else for more pay and work that just is not as hard. And they leave that work at the job, and they punch out at the end of the day. In Wake County, before the pandemic, the average starting hourly wage for teachers was $12 an hour. So you can imagine that we are now over the cliff.

This system is crashing. And this is not hyperbole. Children are eligible to be placed in NC pre-K, but classrooms in Wake County and across the state are closed because they don’t have teachers. When we contact providers to ask them if they can add classrooms, they have the physical space, but they don’t have the staffing right to be there for the children. So we can’t talk about expanding 3-year-old programs without confronting what is both a workforce and a moral issue. It is a racial and gender justice issue. These are people who have always done the work, but we didn’t pay them, starting with those who were enslaved. Mothers and wives — it was children, so we didn’t count that as work. We didn’t pay for it. We don’t respect it. So our solution in the 2000s is to just underpay for it. This is a profession, where people go into signing up for anti-poverty programs themselves. They have college degrees, and still many of them qualify for public programs. Essentially, it’s a legacy of exploitation that we’re living with.

EdNC: What gives you hope about the future of early care and education in North Carolina?

Headen: Locally in Wake County it’s partnerships. We just hosted our third Better Together appreciation event. Over 80 persons were in attendance representing the spectrum of those it takes to do this big work: providers, educators, nonprofits, home visitors, case managers, foundations, local and state elected officials. What’s important is that it is big work, and more than any one of us can accomplish alone. But we can do it when we do it together. The second piece locally is the ways that we continue to evolve to be better at what we do. We now have parents at the table with us as true partners setting strategy. We are lifting up the valuing of the lived experience, so it’s not just numbers on a paper now. We are evolving into, what does this really mean in your life? We are focusing on racial equity because we know that until all children are served,  we’re not meeting our mission. And I have to give a lot of credit to the board. Our strategy was adopted by our board in December 2019. So us meeting the needs of the time and continuing to move that needle is what gives me hope. When I see us continually adapting, that keeps me going.

Then looking broader for North Carolina, there are two things. Local, state, and national collaborations are working on various issues, raising attention to them simultaneously, so it doesn’t feel isolating. We’re all saying wages, compensation. Everybody’s talking about that, and we haven’t experienced that before. And then for North Carolina specifically, we have a comprehensive plan and resources to remedy the problem — Leandro. When we fully fund Leandro it increases teacher pay, which will attract and retain early childhood educators. When we fully fund Leandro, that gets children into preschool and people back to work. And when we fully fund Leandro, we are investing in the whole child during the first 2,000 days period. Again, it’s one of the smartest educational investments you can make.

So for those reasons, and knowing the meaningful difference the work we do makes in the lives of families, I love my job. And even when I’m feeling deflated, I never feel defeated.

Katie Dukes

Katie Dukes is a policy analyst at EdNC.