Head Start Directors Acquire Business Acumen for New Challenges

By Deborah L. Cohen — August 05, 1992 7 min read

Besides the backing of their staffs, directors must also win support from their regional and federal bosses.

At an executive-management course here, students learn to make savvy business decisions by mastering concepts like discounted cash flow, present net value, and diversification. They tackle problems of marketing and management using case studies, spread sheets, and performance-evaluation review charts, and hear lectures peppered with anecdotes from Nordstrom’s, Nissan, Federal Express, and General Motors.

The locale is the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the students are on the front lines of a bustling business whose clientele is expanding rapidly not only in size, but in the diversity of its service needs.

It is called Head Start.

Under a $1.2-million, three-year grant from Johnson & Johnson, 43 Head Start directors from around the country were chosen through a competitive process to take part in a two-week management-training course held here from June 21 to July 3.

The Head Start-Johnson & Johnson Management Fellows Program is designed to help directors develop the business acumen to meet new challenges. At a time when educators and policymakers are increasingly highlighting the importance of the early learning years, Head Start is being hailed by members of both political parties for its 27-year record of providing education, health, and social services to disadvantaged 3- to 5-year-olds.

In recent years, directors in the training program have seen their enrollments rise by 25 percent to 150 percent. While federal mandates to expand the numbers of children served are expected to continue to stretch the capacities of staff and facilities, the numbers of families falling deeper into poverty and facing multiple social woes--from family breakdown to substance abuse--are also placing new stresses on Head Start.

“We want to make sure that, as programs expand, appropriate policies and procedures are put in place’’ to meet those challenges, says Victor Tabbush, associate dean of the Anderson school and the director of its executive-education program.

The goal, he says, is to help directors in “putting together a vision of where their center ought to be going and putting in place programs to meet
that vision.’'

Stronger Skills Needed

Nancy L. Lane, the director of corporate affairs for Johnson & Johnson, said the company’s commitment to help Head Start is part of its “credo’’ to improve the health and education of young children and their parents. A study commissioned by the company identified management as the area where it could make the biggest impact.

While many directors worked their way up as parents or teachers, or were schooled as educators or social workers, the challenge of expansion “requires much stronger management skills than many possess,’' says Patricia Molino, a spokesman for the company.

Most Head Start directors “got to be where they are not because they were successful managers, but because they are good with children,’' observes Alfred E. Osborne Jr., an associate professor of business economics at the Anderson school and the academic director of the Head Start-Johnson & Johnson Management Fellows program.

“Many of the things business is already looking at, Head Start needs to look at,’' says Mac McKeever, the grantee deputy director for the Genesee County (Mich.) Community Action Agency Head Start program, which serves the Flint area. “We have to learn to manage new revenues better and look at competition with other state, federal, and locally funded early-childhood programs.’'

Under the management-fellows program, which was launched as a pilot in 1991 and will continue for at least two more years, the federal Head Start Bureau pays for participants’ transportation, room, board, and materials; Johnson & Johnson covers the other costs of the training.

The two-week, 60-hour agenda begins daily at 7 A.M. and often extends into the evening. It combines standard M.B.A. offerings in financial and human-resource management, strategic planning, contracts and procurement, quality control, operations, and organizational theory with speakers and study-group sessions addressing concerns unique to Head Start.

A distinctive feature, Mr. Osborne says, is the use of case studies reflecting management issues and problems faced by actual Head Start programs. Graduate-student teaching associates--who also lead the study groups--develop the cases from site visits and interviews with directors.

“We don’t just take them off the Harvard Business School shelves,’' Mr. Osborne says.

The program offers computer labs for those unschooled in such business applications as spread sheets and computer graphics. To help directors work more effectively with staff members, parents, boards, funders, and lawmakers, there are also sessions on communication and marketing.

‘Like Any Executive’


In the last three days of the course, each director is joined by a “co-participant,’' representing the director’s board or community-action agency, who works with him or her in drafting a long-range plan to revitalize some aspect of the program. The pairs are encouraged to shoot for “transformational’’ change.

“We’re trying to get people to stretch themselves--not just take on easy issues,’' says Alan L. Carsrud, a visiting associate professor and researcher in the entrepreneurial-studies center and the center for international business education and research at U.C.L.A. and the chairman of family-business programs at the Anderson school.

“Everything they’ve learned over the past two weeks is geared toward taking all that knowledge ... and applying it to their own situations,’' says James Roberson, a teaching associate who, as a Head Start graduate, has a special affinity for the program.

In the final phase of the training, each of the directors stages a mock presentation of his or her Management-Improvement Plan to staff members or superiors and gets input from U.C.L.A. colleagues.

Recurring themes include securing new facilities, reorganizing and training staff, integrating new services, offering a more cohesive approach to troubled families, providing full-day services, and easing the transition from Head Start to school.

Local challenges range from allocating federal aid for substance-abuse treatment, adult literacy, and employment training in riot-torn Los Angeles to tracking the progress through school of Cherokee Nation children to get a better handle on such problems as teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, and dropping out.

But the exercise does not end with the class presentations. Instructors maintain contact with participants once they return home to help them stay on track, and also help facilitate consultation among them.

“We’re going to pursue you relentlessly to make sure those M.I.P.'s are completed successfully,’' Mr. Tabbush gently chides the directors at the closing ceremony.

The ceremony begins with dinner at a country club and is capped by an address by Jo Anne Barnhart, the assistant U.S. secretary of health and human services for the Administration for Children and Families; speeches and songs by participants; and the presentation of graduation plaques.

“It’s neat to have our staff treated like a class act--it makes it all seem so important,’' says Kenneth J. Sweet, the executive director of the Northern Arizona Council of Governments in Flagstaff. He accompanied a Head Start director, Jesse R. Rodriguez, to the training.

“We treat them like any executive who would come through our executive-development program,’' says Myra H. Brown, the coordinator of the management-fellows program at the Anderson school.

Barriers to Innovation

The directors say the training has given them practical tools to reach their goals.

“It’s helped me to lay a very clear foundation for strategic planning and marketing,’' says Mr. Rodriguez of Flagstaff.

“Everything we’ve learned we can put together virtually right away and start making some quality changes and improvements in our programs,’' says Carol Erdman, the Head Start director of the Clinton County Community Action Head Start in Wilmington, Ohio.

In an address at the closing ceremony, Wanda J. Smith, the executive director of Head Start of Greater Dallas Inc., tells her colleagues: “We have the tools to really go back and improve our communities.’'

“We teach them practical things, and they just go and run with it,’' says Mr. Carsrud. “That kind of excitement you don’t always get with the M.B.A.'s.’'

“They have an awful lot of feeling for their mission’’ of serving children and families, Mr. Osborne adds. He concedes, however, that they will need other support.

“Getting the people they work with to believe in their new or expanded way of looking at things is critical,’' he says.

Besides the backing of their staffs, directors must also win support from their regional and federal bosses.

“An education process is necessary for the federal government, because they’ve unleashed a tiger,’' says Mr. Osborne.

Some participants are also concerned about gaining the cooperation of school systems that may see themselves as competing for the same dollars or children or that have different views on how preschool funds should be spent.

A major challenge, says Blanca Estela Enriquez, the director of the Head Start program in El Paso County, Tex., is to ensure that Head Start “becomes truly a community’s program,’' rather than being owned by any single sector. “We can’t afford to live in isolation,’' she says.

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Head Start Directors Acquire Business Acumen for New Challenges