Head Start in ‘crisis’ as public schools hire agency teachers

A nationwide staffing shortage in public schools has impacted Head Start, which is losing many of its most experienced teachers to better-paying jobs in school districts.

In Albany, Head Start operates with approximately 70% of its normal staff. The agency advertises to hire 10 to 15 teachers, who need at least an associate’s degree, and more than 20 teaching assistants. Staffing is getting so bad that they have started offering $3,000 to $5,000 signing bonuses to head teachers.

At the same time, enrollment is down: Head Start has only filled about 70% of its places for children from birth to 4 years old.

“It’s a crisis,” said Neenah Bland, executive director of the Community Action Partnership, which oversees local Head Start programs. “We are losing a lot of our teaching staff to our districts. They advertise kindergarten teachers for $50,000!

Nationally, new elementary teachers who have not yet earned a master’s degree earn an average of $42,390, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. New York State has a higher average, at $52,230.

According to the National Head Start Association, the typical Head Start primary teacher with a bachelor’s degree earns about $34,000 per year.

In Albany, Head Start teachers tend to start at $30,000 to $32,000, working 32 hours with full benefits and free summers.

“But there’s no way to compete with school districts,” Bland said.

They dealt with the lack of staff. But if the program continues to operate with low enrollment, it could have permanent repercussions.

“You can jeopardize your funding,” Bland said.

The low enrollment began during the pandemic, when programs were closed and then reopened with restrictions.

“There was no problem before COVID,” she said.

Albany is not alone. The National Head Start Association released a report in May detailing nationwide staffing issues. The biggest problem, according to the association, is the salary. A survey found that 57% of employees who quit cited low pay as the main reason, while 8% said they were leaving due to COVID-related mask or vaccine mandates.

The National Head Start Association called on Congress to raise salaries for Head Start teachers, which Bland said would likely be the only way to substantially change salaries.

“We have a bit of flexibility, but most of the grant is federal. What they give you is what they give you,” she said.

The association argued that the personnel crisis could become an outcome crisis: teacher turnover can slow down a child’s language and literacy acquisition and social development. A strong bond between teacher and child is considered essential to early child development.

But Bland said locally they haven’t seen those impacts.

“The assessments are pretty much the same,” she said of the tests done to assess children’s progress. “We try to have other consistent staff members. It’s the priority, the children.

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