Voices from the Field: Yasmina Vinci

“Early learning must focus on the whole child and the whole family”
Interview with Yasmina Vinci
Executive Director, National Head Start Association


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

This month the Head Start community will celebrate and reflect on the incredible impact Head Start has made on millions of lives over the last 50 years. For half a century Head Start has represented America’s commitment to giving vulnerable children and their families the opportunity to succeed in school and in life. In those fifty years, over 32 million young lives have been transformed by Head Start’s comprehensive approach to early learning – getting at-risk children ready for kindergarten and setting families on a path toward self-sufficiency.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?  

Yasmina: I am convinced that I have always had the very best job in early care and education, and this is why.

First, I learned an incredible amount about low-income children and families as the director of a non-profit child care center in New Jersey. Most of our families were low-income, so we tried to implement a modest imitation of Head Start. Mentored by the Head Start director in our community, we adopted several key aspects of the Head Start model: we had a nurse for two hours in the mornings, a neighboring pediatrician was always on-call, and we even invested in both a full time social worker and an education coordinator. We also were proud to be among the early adopters of NAEYC accreditation. While serving as center director I was appointed to the State Child Care Advisory Council and the Governor’s Employer-Supported Child Care Task Force.

Later, as a state government employee, I managed the Dependent Care Grant and Head Start research, wrote the application for the Head Start-State Collaboration Grant and participated in the planning for the implementation of the original Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). During that intense and energizing period, I became curious about how much early childhood money, other than Head Start, came into the state.  It was quite a chase but my summary (as much as I wondered about the accuracy of the information I was given) was a treasured document, simply because no one had attempted it before.

When all the planning was done and I saw our CCDBG policies in state statute, I was recruited to move to Washington and start NACCRRA (now Child Care Aware America) just as the Clinton Administration was starting.

Fast forward through Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a few other adventures to 2009, when I chose to join the National Head Start Association. I knew, based on my work with the Obama policy teams, that this President was and is committed to progress on behalf of children, families and education. Head Start, as the original, intentionally designed system could be at the center of that nexus but the movement would need to evolve and I’m proud of the change we’ve been able to achieve in 6 short years.

Steven: Why is early learning important for our communities and nation?

Yasmina: The first five years of life represent a critical period of growth and development – a time when walking, talking, self-esteem, vision of the world and moral foundations are established. When children are given the benefit of early childhood education, risk factors can be identified and addressed early, stronger communities forged, and positive early life experiences created so students enter Kindergarten eager and ready to learn.

Learning ABC’s and 123’s, although critical, is not sufficient to fully prepare children to be ready to succeed later in life. Early learning must focus on the whole child and the whole family. That means embracing a comprehensive approach to early learning, which includes home visits, health screenings, improved nutrition and two-generation efforts that provide a foundation for stabilizing the family and home, and ensuring the entire family is prepared and invested in their own lifelong success.

Hundreds of studies over four decades show the significant and meaningful effects Head Start has had on the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable children—lowered need for special education, better health and wellness as teens and adults, higher high school and college graduation rates, and greater participation of parents in their child’s education.

Abundant research indicates Head Start works and stories of Head Start alumni who escaped generational poverty with the help of Head Start prove it.  As Executive Director of NHSA I have travelled cross-country and heard the stories of Head Start alumni who have overcome incredible challenges to give back to their communities as educators, doctors, entrepreneurs, ambassadors, Members of Congress, Mayors and military personnel, to name just a few. By laying a foundation for success in kindergarten, quality early education sets the course for our children to become productive and engaging future members of our community.

How can Head Start programs partner with schools to improve outcomes for young children?

NHSA has studied and described several models of successful partnerships between Head Start and schools and there is no doubt that the entire community benefits when effective partnerships are supported and all resources maximized. We found that the transition from pre-K to kindergarten is a very important part of a child’s early academic years and an emphasis on child development principles needs to continue to inform and drive elementary education until at least third grade.

Head Start’s comprehensive approach, which focuses on the whole child and the whole family, should go beyond pre-K and follow children through their elementary school years. In diverse communities across the country, local schools are embracing the Head Start approach to ensuring children and families continue to receive the innovative and comprehensive support that is laying the foundation for success for these families.

These partnerships are also a critical component of Head Start’s two-generational approach, which emphasizes the importance of engaged parents. Since its beginning the Head Start model has supported parents as they get their education and develop the skills they need for success. Partnerships forged with schools – from elementary schools to local colleges – make it possible for families to get back on the path to self-sufficiency.

Adapting the implementation of Head Start’s rigorous standards to the realities of so many unique communities – and of so many families distinguished from each other by a variety of strengths and risks – the degree of originality with which local programs approach their mission is extraordinary. So much of this partnering and local customization is made possible by Head Start’s federal to local funding model. We look forward to strengthening these partnerships and continuing to lay a foundation for success for our community’s at-risk children.

Steven: What is the role of Head Start in the President’s proposal for early learning (Partnerships, Preschool for All)?

Yasmina: Head Start’s tried and true comprehensive approach to early learning is the model upon which the President has based his early learning proposal, which is aimed specifically at enhancing and expanding the reach of high-quality public preschool programs in our nation’s most vulnerable communities. For 50 years Head Start programs have served the poorest of the poor, developing an innovative, comprehensive approach to early childhood education that has opened windows of opportunity for over 32 million young lives.

Unfortunately, despite these success stories, there remain millions of at-risk children without access to quality learning in their most critical early years. The President’s more than 1 billion dollar investment will help fortify and expand Head Start programs that are preparing children for success, while also supporting parents in getting their families on the path to self-sufficiency. The proposal includes over 200 new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grants, new investments in Evidence-based Home visiting, and funding to expand the duration of the Head Start school day.

The Head Start model centers on communities coming together to support our most vulnerable children with a vision that focuses on the whole-child and the whole family. The commitment from the White House is a powerful step forward in ensuring all our nation’s children are able to benefit from these critical needs and able to reach their full potential later in life.

Steven: What is the National Head Start Association’s role in the national early learning movement?

Yasmina: NHSA is the uniting voice for the millions of families, communities, programs, researchers, and policymakers who are dedicated to supporting the future of our nation’s most at-risk children. As the only national non-profit dedicated to Head Start, NHSA works to bridge the gap between policy makers in Washington and Head Start providers by ensuring that the voices and stories of Head Start staff, teachers, parents and alumni are heard. In addition to advocacy on Capitol Hill, NHSA cultivates, supports, and disseminates innovations and best practices in state-based early learning systems, strengthening dialogue and collaboration between Head Start practitioners and researchers. Through grassroots action, as well as alumni and parent-driven support, NHSA is proud to serve as the voice for more than 1 million children, 200,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start grantees in the United States.