Where Hope Comes From

I learned from an early age what Head Start was meant to do. In 1966, my brother and I spent a summer on the campus of Oklahoma State University in an apartment with my mother who was getting the training to be among the first Head Start teachers in the nation.

She explained to us that Head Start was for kids who needed a little more help in getting started in school. She had been a classroom teacher for probably 15 years by that time. I was seven years old.

I remember helping her set up her classroom later that summer. She placed red geraniums along the windows. There were lots of numbers and letters on the walls, and the desks were arranged in neat rows.  She was planning to teach Head Start for half the day and kindergarten the other half in our small town.

I also remember seeing the parents of those children who came to meet the teacher before school started. There was a mother who had the most neatly ironed flowered shirtdress I had ever seen.  She smelled of Ivory soap and her hair was arranged in a neat bun at the back of her head. She dressed up just to come and meet the teacher who would help her son.

I remember that boy and his little brother; both would have my mother to help them get started.  I saw that mother several times after that, and she always fixed up to meet the teacher.

My mom offered hope to these families.

Who’s offering hope to families now?

Schools are expected, of course, to educate students and ensure they graduate ready for school or good jobs.

But the school system can’t do it all. Students need support from their families and communities to absorb good instruction and to benefit from the structure of school life.

In Louisville, the community leadership is aware of this need and is responding. JCPS partners are working to provide extended learning opportunities and coordinated access to social services for students so that they can gain the skills that will propel them successfully through school.

However, there is a counter wind blowing from the public policy arenas that is at odds with these local efforts, and where support could make a difference on a larger scale.

Just scan news coverage and you’ll see what I mean:

“Kentucky’s education programs are going to see federal funds cut by nearly $32 million starting July 1…additional grants for teacher training, community learning centers, vocational rehabilitation, work-study and adult literacy programs are also being cut.”  The Courier-Journal, June 23, 2013

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday commented in that article that this will cause fewer children to get needed services, saying, “These cuts will hamper our efforts in Kentucky to prepare children for colleges and careers.”

Writing earlier this spring of cuts in state child care assistance, Terry Brooks, Executive Director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said, “The cuts threaten public safety, education, the health and development of children, and the stability of families in ways that will cost Kentucky for years to come. While these cuts are being made to save money in the short term, they will most certainly cost taxpayers more money in the long term.”

Steve Magre with Child Care Advocates of Kentucky echoed this message about the crisis in access to licensed childcare centers in a more recent C-J column. Families are facing a tough choice, he explained: leave their jobs, or take their children to unmonitored care settings. 

Can you imagine such a choice? I cannot, and they should not have to.

There is even a controversy in Washington D.C. over funding to provide food for families – at a time when the gap between the rich and poor is increasing.

Last week, the House of Representatives failed to reauthorize and fund the farm bill largely because some believe that food stamps – a part of that legislation – cost too much, and even heralded rumors of fraud in the program. However, a watchdog group called Taxpayers for Common Sense has reported that the food stamp program is well managed and fraud is low.

Furthermore, the federal budget forecasts do not bode well over the next few years for the labor, health and education departments, where many of the programs to help families receive funding.

As for Head Start? Our own school system, while working to beef up early childhood education, is dealing with reduced funding which results in fewer seats for children who need that boost.

Supports for families like childcare and food and early education make a difference, but this knowledge is not making enough headway in our pubic policy arenas.

Last fall, Dr. James Heckman from the University of Chicago addressed a group of Kentucky leaders from the business, government, education and nonprofit worlds, about the importance of early childhood investments. He is a Nobel prize winner in economics. The event was sponsored by Governor Beshear’s Office of Early Childhood and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

He pointed to studies confirming that early childhood interventions show the best outcomes in their later success.  He added that a healthy family life is extra important in children’s success.

It should be no surprise, that in Finland, for example, which is among the countries with the highest educational achievement in the world, quality preschool is guaranteed to anyone who needs it.   Anyone, not just some.

Where is hope coming from for families with children who need assistance with quality childcare or a boost in starting school ready to learn? 

Kentucky Governor Beshear has made providing early education a priority, but he will need more support to continue to make progress for families and their children.

The public decisions that affect families are being made on our behalf.  So, hope has to come from us.

Speak up. That’s how the system works.


And for more about how the child care assistance cuts affect families, and cause a ripple effect in the need for services, read this report from WFPL…..


About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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6 Responses to Where Hope Comes From

  1. Lesley Gudgel says:

    So well said, Debbie! Isn’t it funny that though our areas of study as college roommates were vastly different, we ended up working on the same passion!

  2. Gene Wallace says:

    Re:Where hope comes from, it’s strange that on the 4 th if July as an Elected Official and Granfathet who wants a better World for the future, I was mowing my lawn and thinking of the very issues outline in Debbie’s thoughts.
    I fear it’s taken us just 237 years since our Declaration of Independence to abandon the thought of Comon Good. Our framers were visionary educated and understood the meaning of a Republic whose continued investment in a well educated, civilized world would build communities and a Nation.

    • Thanks for comments from my Oklahoma friends. I met Lesley, of Tulsa soon to move to Houston, who lived across the hall from me at the University of Oklahoma as freshmen, and who would be my great friend the rest of our college years, and now an expert in early education. Gene Wallace, of Muskogee, who as he says is an elected official and earlier led many other elected officials on the right paths, including U.S. Rep. Mike Synar, who, I believe, would be saying these things about the common good and definitely getting attention!

  3. hi debbie!

    i love your passion for the most vulnerable in our society
    and remember well your gracious, kind, and lovely mother.

    what can i do? mentor a young girl at one of our poorest
    elementary schools. she and i have had lunch about once
    a week for three years. we have a little mantra: “make
    good grades and be kind, get into carver (best middle school
    in her district) make good grades and be kind, get into
    booker t. washington (best high school) make good grades
    and be kind. then get into the best college you can and find
    a career you love.”

    so happy you’re writing a blog!


  4. Deborah Walker says:

    Debbie: This is a very moving piece, made more so by your personal experience. Communicating these kinds of experiences to legislators, especially at the federal level is critical. There are too many stereotypes floating around that parents who are not wealthy don’t care about their children or their education. We need to break down those stereotypes and not expect those most economically vulnerable to carry the burden of budget cuts. Why anyone would want to cut preschool programs is beyond me.

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