In 1965, Head Start of Shawnee Mission began serving 17 children for a summer. Fifty years later, the organization is named Growing Futures, and it serves hundreds of kids in Johnson County year-round.
With half a century of experience, Growing Futures is celebrating its anniversary. It’s not the same place it was 50 years ago — but neither is Johnson County. A changing population has brought new challenges and inspired new programming to help not just children but their families as well.
“While we’re fairly small, we’re also in a county that’s considered very affluent, and sometimes people wonder why in the world you have a Head Start in Johnson County,” said Terrie VanZandt-Travis, executive director of Growing Futures. But, she noted, there are “33,000 people living at poverty in Johnson County.”
The cut-off for Head Start assistance funding says that a family must have been living at 100 percent of the poverty level or less for at least 12 months. Right now, there are 206 families at Growing Futures, located at 8155 Santa Fe Drive in Overland Park, who are there through that funding, and there is a waiting list.
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A few years ago, when the recession hit people the hardest, Growing Futures’ waiting list swelled to 400. It’s not as long a list now, but there are still about 100 families waiting for a spot.
Although they work closely with the Shawnee Mission School District, the two aren’t connected through funding, said VanZandt-Travis. One of the reasons they changed their name at the beginning of 2015 was to avoid confusion over the similar names.
VanZandt-Travis said that they value many of the connotations of the name Head Start, but a lot of parents told them, “When I tell people where I take my kids, they say, ‘Oh, you take your kids to that poor kids’ school.’”
“I’ve been asked, ‘What’s wrong with the people who bring their kids here? Why are they poor?’ They’re working multiple jobs, but they’re making $7.25 an hour. … Seventy-eight percent of the families we’re serving are working one or two jobs and going to school. These are folks who very much value their child getting an education,” VanZandt-Travis said.
Although the name has changed, the group still offers the Head Start programming at its Overland Park education center and accepts children who qualify for federal and state assistance. They also take kids who don’t qualify for aid, for a fee.
The percentage of families at Growing Futures whose native language is not English has increased in the last decade and now hovers between 25 and 33 percent.
Head Start guidelines require the organization to have interpreters at any meeting with parents who need that assistance. Though a high percentage of these parents speak Spanish, others speak languages from other parts of the world that aren’t as common around here. That can make finding a translator difficult and expensive.
After the initial pilot program of Head Start ran in the summer of 1965, the program continued for three summers before they expanded it to run throughout the year. For the first few decades, it focused on children from 3 to 5 years old.
About 20 years ago, they expanded their programming to include everything from prenatal visits, through the early years, all the way up to the start of kindergarten.
Growing Futures staff also makes home visits twice a year to offer support to families.
That support might be helping parents learn to write a resume, improve their English or figure out how to pay off debts so they can provide a better environment for their kids. Growing Futures also offers kids and their parents treatment at on-site medical and dental clinics.
One of the big hurdles they’ve faced in recent years is budget cuts. The federal budget sequestration of 2013 hit all Head Start programs nationwide, VanZandt-Travis said, and to compensate for the dip in funding, this program eliminated a bus service costing $26,000 a year that helped transport kids to their education center in Overland Park.
Since then, the government restored the group’s funding to its previous level. Instead of reinstating the bus service, Growing Futures used the money to increase its staff and open up new spots for kids. They also have to raise matching funds for all the government money they receive.
When the program started all those years ago, the requirements for teachers were also not as stringent as they are today. At Growing Futures, all of the 15 lead teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, and all eight assistant teachers have a child development associate’s credential.
“It’s a big deal,” VanZandt-Travis said. “Most folks in early childhood education do not make the big bucks. It’s a big plus for the children and families.”