• Suzanne Nason

Lutheran Services Florida: Saving Jacksonville’s Head Start Program and Strategizing to Transform Its Culture

LSF Duval has partnered with Pure Edge to build on its Head Start program’s incredible turnaround.

Five years ago, no one would have believed that the Head Start program in Jacksonville, Florida, would one day receive a glowing write-up from the New York Times or a feature on NBC Nightly News. A visit from federal authorities had found numerous health and safety violations, with conditions unsuitable for young children. They removed the nonprofit that had been running the program and enlisted Lutheran Services Florida (LSF) to attempt a turnaround. Since then, LSF has achieved that turnaround, and perhaps even a total transformation. Praised by local and national news outlets for its cleaner facilities, better-qualified teachers and stricter standards, LSF has improved outcomes for children. Much of the staff has experienced major structural changes and witnessed harsh criticism of the program through its history, and LSF leadership is now determined to create a positive climate for both employees and learners.

“In the next grant cycle, we want to focus on physical and mental staff wellness and do the same for our children in the classroom,” shared Maria McNair, Deputy Director of LSF Duval Head Start, the branch serving the Jacksonville area.

Partnership with Pure Edge has been part of a broader strategy for staff wellness, and the potential impact extends beyond LSF employees to the thousands of children they serve. LSF Duval directly operates 11 sites, with another 21 operated through childcare partners and school district sites throughout the city. They serve approximately 1,400 children and their families, and LSF statewide serves over 5,000.

When Pure Edge visited Jacksonville to present Educator Self-Care and Brain Breaks Implementation for LSF employees, “it was a very timely partnership, because we are implementing mindfulness in the classroom and transitioning to a brand-new curriculum,” said McNair.

“Pure Edge has provided an intentional focus for teachers to implement Brain Breaks throughout the day and for staff to be conscientious about their self-care and ensuring their overall wellness.” Now, whenever the staff meets, they include a Pure Edge strategy such as a Brain Break in the agenda.

McNair has found that an understanding of basic neuroscience and the ability to consider why learners behave in certain ways have been important takeaways for educators and staff. In her view, the major highlights for her team have been “the tangible strategies that they can easily remember and implement to de-escalate situations and calm themselves.” Team leadership has noticed the early impact of educators using those strategies and sharing them with learners. “The teachers have seen a difference in some of the behaviors with children,” said Catherine Penton-Gooch, Early Childhood Education Program Manager.

“When they start this process at the beginning of their school time, they are ready to learn and able to relax and connect.”

She and other staff members have employed the breathing and movement techniques at home as well. McNair has personally integrated a favorite posture into her self-care practice at home and shared it with her nephew and sons. Penton-Gooch also introduced the techniques into her family life. “I went home and did the Starfish with my two-year-old grandson,” she said. “Not only did I like it professionally for our staff, but I was also able to do it personally and implement it in our house. In today’s world, we need that time.”

Now that LSF has turned the Head Start program around, it must consider where it goes from here and what its vision for the future looks like. Leadership understands how important it will be to have classrooms where adults model social-emotional skills for young learners in their interactions with each other and in the management of their own emotions. They want to design new spaces where staff can break away for quiet moments of reflection and regulation. McNair hopes for a “shift in energy” in the classrooms and to achieve the fewest possible negative incidents between educators and learners. She acknowledges that that adverse childhood experiences, trauma and challenging behaviors will always exists. But she knows that a group of teachers who can remain compassionate toward learners and access a toolkit of strategies will make a major difference in the lives of the young children they serve.

“I am a firm believer that if we have staff who are strong, confident, knowledgeable and taking care of themselves,” she explained, “in turn they are going to bring the best versions of themselves into the classrooms, and children’s outcomes will be affected in a positive way.”

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