Teacher shortage at Growing Futures, Head Start program in Overland Park, creates domino effect on vulnerable children and families

Growing Futures Early Education Center in Overland Park faces a teacher shortage, creating a domino effect that hurts the vulnerable children and families the Head Start program serves. Above, Spider-Man and Batman make an appearance at Growing Futures.

Growing Futures Early Education Center in Overland Park is facing a dire shortage of teachers.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the nonprofit organization through Head Start typically had one or two vacancies to fill. Growing Futures now has eight unfilled teacher positions.

For Terrie VanZandt-Travis, executive director of Growing Futures, potential reasons for a dearth of early childhood educators go far beyond the stresses and uncertainties brought on by the global pandemic: A lack of competitive pay and additional responsibilities placed on educators (especially during the pandemic) have compounded the problem.

“This has been building in the field of early learning for a long time,” VanZandt-Travis said. “Even before COVID, there were issues. And a big part of the issues… is that our culture, our country, has got to come to terms with: Early education is of value. But if we don’t take care of the people that do the work, the high level of outcomes that the children can achieve will be impacted.”

With a shortage of eight teachers, everyone at Growing Futures has had to step up and help. But this big of a shortage means some classrooms, which require two teachers each, have to go virtual or “hybrid” (half in person, half virtual).

“Our staff passionately care about the mission, they passionately care about the children, they want to be here,” VanZandt-Travis added. “But they’re tired. This is hard.”

Serving ‘vulnerable’ children and families

“When you have a time in society where fewer people want to stay in the field of education… now we’re all really competing against one another to find the staff to take care of the precious children. Combine that with you’re in a pandemic… it’s just exhausting,” said Terrie VanZandt-Travis, executive director of Growing Futures.

The Head Start program serves vulnerable children from birth to age 5 and their families as well as pregnant women in Johnson County. By “vulnerable,” this could mean the children and families face trauma or struggles such as financial strain or poverty, homelessness or learning disabilities.

Growing Futures is working on solutions to the teacher shortage, such as providing more competitive pay. VanZandt-Travis said caring for her teachers and making sure they’re doing well is also critical for the nonprofit to operate successfully and for the children and their families to thrive in the program.

Some of the classrooms have gone virtual, but staff at Growing Futures are working to connect the 223 children they serve with the resources they need. Photo courtesy Growing Futures.

Growing Futures was established in 1965 with 17 preschoolers. The nonprofit prepares children for kindergarten in the Shawnee Mission School District and provides a variety of social services and resources such as healthcare, English language and mental wellness therapy, among other things.

Today, Growing Future serves 223 children, with a waitlist averaging 125 children. There’s physically a lack of room and a lack of funding to support those children, VanZandt-Travis added.

All of the families at Growing Future live at 100% of the federal poverty level. For a family of three, that’s just under $22,000 a year, VanZandt-Travis said. But the livable wage in Johnson County is closer to $60,000 a year for a family of three, presenting a gap for what families need to live here.

Meanwhile, Growing Futures must raise $415,000 each year to match a Head Start grant and be in compliance with Head Start — and raise even more just to pay bills and maintain costs. That means Head Start funding is not enough to sustain teacher salary increases.

“When you have a time in society where fewer people want to stay in the field of education… now we’re all really competing against one another to find the staff to take care of the precious children,” VanZandt-Travis said. “Combine that with you’re in a pandemic… it’s just exhausting.”

‘Haven’t missed a beat’

Terrie VanZandt-Travis said she’s proud of the teachers for how hard they’ve worked to serve their children.

Even faced with the teacher shortage, VanZandt-Travis said she’s immensely proud of the teachers at the education center.

“Throughout this, our staff haven’t faltered,” VanZandt-Travis said. “We’ve all been living through a little bit of fear; these guys haven’t missed a beat.” Back in March 2020, the center shut down and pivoted to virtual learning, with teachers using their personal devices to connect with the children.

Growing Futures families are income eligible for a childcare subsidy through the Kansas Department for Children and Families. But state regulations at the time required children to be physically in the building.

At the time, they faced a budget shortfall of as much as $36,000 a month during the shutdown, until reopening in June 2020. But donations and grants helped Growing Futures stay afloat at the end of last year with virtual fundraising, COVID relief and other measures.

Teachers like Miss Kelly (above) have gone virtual, but technology has allowed them to develop better connections with parents and families.

“At the end [of 2020], we were still able to come out even,” Jessica Hoffman, director of development and community relations. “We got real creative.”

When the center returned from a brief shutdown and brought children back to the classrooms in June 2020, they faced all of the uncertainties that other early childhood educators and teachers faced in the following months. The young children they serve from birth to age 5 are ineligible for COVID-19 vaccination.

“When we first reopened, I can picture standing right here in this hallway, actually,” VanZandt-Travis said. “Miss Rachel, one of our early Head Start teachers, bent down talking to a child. She had her mask on. The child at the time did not and coughed right in her face. Think about where our heads all were back at that point. Miss Rachel didn’t miss a beat, gave him a hug, went on with her job. This stuff gets me.”

Here are some other success stories:

  • Miss Sheila has four of her children climbing all over her, their masks all askew, and some with runny noses and coughs. She doesn’t miss a beat.
  • Miss Kiki teaches her toddlers that our skin may look different colors, but our hearts are the same.
  • Miss Kelly has built better dialogue with parents through the pandemic

Miss Kelly, a teacher of 19 years at Growing Futures who just went virtual again because she lacks a second teacher in the classroom, said technology, especially texting, has enabled her to build deeper connections with parents and children.

“It means a lot,” Kelly said. “I actually have a better relationship with them now, going through this (pandemic).”

Growing Futures places an emphasis on the whole health and well-being of the children and families they serve, VanZandt-Travis said. When they hear of parents and families struggling — especially of late when some have faced job layoffs and tragedies like a house burning down — they do what they can to connect the families to resources, and keep the classrooms open as much as possible.

However, some classrooms and even the entire building have had to shut down and go virtual after COVID-19 exposures and other illnesses impacted programming. This can be disastrous for children whose families need to work and cannot watch them, or for children with uncertain situations outside of Growing Futures.

“One mother said, ‘I understand, I get it, but I now have to quit my job,’” VanZandt-Travis said. “And that’s what hurts. Because that’s the reason we’re here, is to help these families not be in poverty. We’re all hurting for our families.”

Click here to check out hiring opportunities at Growing Futures.