Preschool Podcast

How The National Head Start Association Is Finding Opportunity In Crisis

Episode 201 – In this episode, we interview Yasmina Vinci, Executive Director of the National Head Start Association, about how Head Start programs are responding to the COVID-19 crisis. We chat about the dedication of educators serving their communities and the hidden opportunity behind the crisis. Tune in to hear how the NHSA is supporting educators in their programs. 

Connect with Yasmina on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Episode Transcript

Yasmina VINCI:

When everything is turned upside down, why not make a big push and try to improve everything, the condition of the workforce and the programs and children and families?


Yasmina, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you, Ron!


We’re delighted to have you. We have on our show today Yasmina Vinci. She is the executive director of the National Head Start Association. If you’re an early-childhood educator in America, there’s a good chance you know about the Head Start program there. And even if you’re somewhere international, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it.

So, we’re delighted to have Yasmina on the show today. We’re going talk to her about, of course, the context we’re in with COVID-19 and how that has impacted National Head Start programs. But before we do that, I should say, let’s learn a little bit about you, Yasmina. How did you come to be in this role? What were you doing before the National Head Start Association?


So, Ron, I’ve spent my whole life – my whole professional life – in early-childhood education. Mostly actually in childcare, various roles in childcare from being a director of a childcare center for about 180 children to working in state government on policy and managing some federal grants, early-childhood grants.

And then starting a national organization, which is now called Child Care Aware of America. It’s a network of local organizations, sort of similar in that way being a network to what the National Head Start Association is.

The National Head Start Association is, as you say, I have been in Head Start only about eleven years. And the Association actually has a bigger mission than just the local programs with the members. The mission is really to make sure that the vulnerable children and their families can be served with a Head Start model of caring for the whole child and the whole family.


The fact that you said “only eleven years with the National Head Start Association” speaks to your level of experience.


You know, I always used to think, when I was doing all these other things seem childcare, I always used to think, “Gee, one thing I have never done is Head Start.” And I really felt very, because I admired Head Start from a distance, I also felt that Head Start seemed somehow… I don’t know, standoffish or something. So, there was a fascination with it.

I was having my own consulting firm briefly. And then when I was recruited to come in and turn around the National Head Start Association because it really needed a turnaround – and I love startups and turnarounds – I thought, “Oh, my opportunity, finally! Head Start!” And then and then of course, after the turnaround, there was no going back because I really fell in love with Head Start even further.


Oh, that’s a great story. And we’re also very familiar with Child Care Aware of America. They’re a great organization as well.


Yeah, I was the first director of that.


Yeah, I did not know that, actually, until just now. So, I always learn something new on the Podcast. That’s the first thing I’ve learned – I’m sure I’m going to learn some more, starting with the question of, what is the National Head Start Association? So, I think we’re all… most people are pretty familiar with Head Start. But what does the National Head Start Association do? Like, what role does it play?


We’re the voice… and you know, “advocacy” in Latin, I think, means… to advocate is to give voice. We’re the advocacy organization for the local Head Start programs. We think that all the good work is being done on the local level but that if you don’t have a strong voice in Washington that there is not going to be the resources to do the good work.

And so we’re the advocacy organization. But we also feel that we’re the advocacy organization for the for the children and families who have served in Head Start because they’re the ones who are very much… I mean, the local programs are very much the way that the benefit and the advantage of Head Start gets conferred on the people they serve.


Yeah, that makes sense. And it’s a common problem in childcare and early-childhood education where lots of amazing things are happening locally and on the ground but there’s not a large aggregated voice for everybody. So, that makes a lot of sense.

Let’s start off with a little bit of a random question, which is your conference. So, I understand you had a conference last week and that’s something that… we’re used to most conferences getting canceled or rescheduled or delayed. But word has it that you went ahead and had a conference, I believe, just last week. Tell us a little bit about that.


We had a blast! So, what happened, we were planning our regular, annual conference in Phoenix, Arizona, which, if you’re in Toronto, you can appreciate how in the end of March, that’s probably a great place to go or any place get off north of I don’t know what.

So, we were expecting quite a large group again. And then with COVID-19 we actually took the risk of saying, “We can’t do this because it’s not safe.” And then the question of getting together… I mean, for us, we actually have five different gatherings a year, all with a different purpose. But there was quite a sense that this time when everybody was just… lives just changed, suddenly. The Head Start program was sent home to shelter in place and to figure out how to continue to stay in touch with the families.

So, we felt it was really, really important to stay connected and have this gathering. The team… I’m just, like, in awe of our team. I’ve always loved them and appreciated them. But I was just stunned by the speed and the energy with which we put together the conference. And people loved it.

Just today, we were having a business meeting, the Association business meeting also remotely, which we usually have at our regular conference but we did have it on the virtual. And somebody said, “Ah, I was in the conference and it was so great!” And we just, like… staying close together when you’re physically distant is really important. And we gave it our role and had a big return in the interest and in the appreciation that we got from people.


Yeah, that’s amazing. And we’ve been hearing that, too, just in terms of now being more important than ever to stay connected with people in the community. And yes, I would have loved to stay connected with the community in Phoenix instead of in Toronto, where we had snow in late April. But things are turning around.

But speaking of community discussions, I also understand you’re doing something called a “weekly kitchen table community discussion”, which I guess is a more regular opportunity to connect as a community. Can you speak to that a little bit?


So, the moment we all went to … suddenly everybody in the country was – just about everybody, I guess, not totally 100% – but we realized then that there were so many questions and that people were going to feel alone. And so we said, “Okay, let’s go from our kitchen table, invite everybody to it.”

And it actually was sparked, just the whole idea of inviting everybody to the table… years ago, a person who [was] really a Washington insider said, “In Washington, there’s no table large enough for all those who think they should be at the table.” So, we sort of did that, turned that on its head and said, “Okay, our table is large enough. We’ll keep buying the license for more and more people as we get them. So, let’s invite everybody to the table, although a big kitchen table in Washington.”

So, those are really times that we do different things. But they’re very topical. We hadn’t planned three months of broadcasts. We just do it every week, the things that are most salient and most… the newest resources that we can share with people or the things that people have ideas [about].

Yesterday we did one on just the questions about opening up again because some states have begun to reopen. And we wanted to just first take the pulse and find out what the people are most worried about so that we can begin to prepare and support them.

That also informs our advocacy in terms of what they need resources for. We found out that people will need resources for masks and for all kinds of personal protection equipment, that they will need all the cleaning supplies, that they will need… I mean, we’re also gathering information for the advocacy as well.


Yeah, it’s certainly a time to be flexible and adaptive in terms of what we’re thinking about and what actions were taking. And so let’s continue the conversation that you were having yesterday about reopening. So, this is a conversation that’s more prevalent now that some states are opening things up a little bit more. What recommendations or any guidelines from the National Head Start Association in terms of that? You mentioned personal protective equipment. [Are] there other things that you’re recommending?


Well, what we’re doing right now, having listened yesterday, we had… in the one hour we gathered 1,856 [social media] comments, which I’m going to read all over this weekend. Really, people’s… what they were most worried [about] what they needed.

What we’re going to start with is, with a general set of principles, the things that we do want when whatever solutions are both offered by the federal government or the state governments, whatever regulations and rules, some things sort of need to be kept in mind by everybody, the programs and the regulators. And that is that the children, the well-being and health of the children, the well-being and health of the staff – the families have to come first.

And then you derive your… we’re then going to back out and back in the into the whole thing of what actually that means. It may mean slightly different things in different places, but then there are things like the personal protection equipment. We actually found one of our corporate council members went to and actually found large, large bulk amounts of everything on the Center for Disease Control’s list of personal protection equipment.

And so yesterday we announced that that was also available. So, people will be able to order the things that they can’t find that, they can’t get now easily – masks and gloves the little foot things for the to cover the feet, diapers and no-touch thermometers. There’s a whole list of things that people will be able to order.


Oh, that’s great. And 1,856 comments, you’re going to be busy this weekend. But that’s great feedback to have from the community to help inform your principles and what falls underneath. And that makes a lot of sense.

And I was having a conversation with somebody earlier today on the same concept of starting at that level of, for example, health and safety and what you want to achieve there and then getting more specific into solutions.

Speaking of which, though, do you find – or are you finding – that Head Start programs are having unique challenges as Head Start programs at all during this time?


You know, the unique challenges [that] come in the Head Start programs – and it’s not a challenge, actually, it’s one of the strengths of the Head Start program – is that they really are engaged with the family and they care for the family. They are finding in some cases that their families do not have the ways to stay remotely. They don’t have internet or they don’t have the devices or they may have become homeless suddenly and they now live on a relative’s couch. And so they [the program directors] don’t know where they have gone to.

So, in trying to, and because Head Start programs are staying very much in touch with the children, some of them are doing… one of them, she made the corner where she reads from [in the classroom], she made her bedroom look like the place that the children know, where they sit for the circle times. And she transmits from there on Zoom [social media networking program].

So, the point is that you cannot have that continued contact. I don’t know if you’ve seen it on Twitter or Facebook, some of them have done… there was one person who actually put whatever was the favorite mascot [of the children] – it wasn’t Clifford the Red Dog, it was some sort of dog, I think.

And which the teacher dropped the learning packets for the parents to work with their children wearing the costume so that the kids would all come to the window and wave at her and get all excited because they knew her and loved her. And now she was wearing their favorite costume. And so the program’s biggest issue [is] the families who are hard to find or hard to stay in touch with.


Yeah, that makes sense because everything is now virtual and remote. And sometimes maybe you have those amazing ECE’s [early-childhood educators] who go above and beyond and visit the house like that, which is a great story. But that’s obviously hard to do as well on a regular basis with so many youngsters. So, that’s interesting.


Yeah, she made a hundred-and-some miles to just cover the 18 kids in her class.


Oh, wow! Good for her, though. It’s so meaningful for those children to have that moment, I have no doubt.

To wrap things up, Yasmina, this is also a stressful time creating some anxiety on multiple levels. Do you have any words of encouragement for our listeners, our early-childhood educators out there who are wondering what’s next and dealing with all the things we’re dealing with right now?


So, the way I cope with setbacks in life is to always look for the opportunity in whatever horrible thing is happening. So with this, I’m thinking, “Okay, there’s so many. Now is the time for us to change some things that we don’t like about what happens in early-childhood, whatever that may be.”

It is certainly the time to absolutely do a loud voice about the people who are working – the workforce, the childcare workforce. I’m about to call my colleagues and say, “Why are we not just using this opportunity to change the whole… the measuring and valuing and compensating the workforce?”

I think we also have an opportunity to redesign our programs and think more about maybe adding screens. If we can get the parents to have access to things, adding some screen time that’s good instructional material. Just do things that maybe we have been hoping for and do things that there may have been some inklings and people had started doing them.

But now when everything is up and turned upside down, why not make a big push and try to improve everything, the condition of the workforce and programs and children and families? I’m very optimistic. I’m just… I keep looking.

And in fact, we’re about to start a directors group to envision a better future and sort of envisioning not sort of, like, pie-in-the-sky, but realistically, what all can we see that we could do differently and that could be done differently? And that ultimately what we’re going to, when the Head Start Act is being reauthorized, to actually go for some good changes.


Yeah, absolutely. Those are great words of encouragement. And there’s always opportunity and some might say, in particular, in a crisis. And certainly I think a lot of folks have come to appreciate a lot more of the value that early-childhood educators bring to society and to our children when we don’t have that service. So, certainly I do think it’s a great opportunity.

And thank you for advocating on behalf of early-childhood educators, on behalf of Head Start programs. Thank you so much for that. And thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today, Yasmina!


Thank you, Ron, it was a pleasure. Thank you!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!