Alumni Spotlight: Rep. Jahana Hayes
When she started school at Slocum Head Start in Waterbury, Connecticut, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes knew, even at four years old, that she was a part of a community.
"It wasn’t just where children got an education. Parents could also access housing, and healthcare, and community resources. That’s what I understood education to look like–all the people coming together to make sure that kids had a full and robust experience, and that stuck with me.”
Rep. Hayes has carried the Head Start mission into her career as an award-winning teacher and congresswoman.
"Head Start was where I first developed my love of learning and the idea that I could learn. Even though I hadn’t traveled, I remember Miss Debbie talking about her family and their vacations and reading to us. And that’s where I really grew to learn the concept of ‘it takes a village.’ And that has been my educational philosophy. Every time someone says ‘the school should do this…’ No, it’s the community, it’s the entire community that should be investing in children.”
Head Start remained a deeply influential part of her personal community, with her children participating in the same program she had attended.
“I stand here today as the Congresswoman from Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District,” she said. “But I was a teenage mom, a high school dropout who just wanted the opportunity to go to school. So not only was I a student at Head Start, but I also sent my children to Head Start, and it was an equalizer for me.”
Fulfilling a Dream to Teach
Rep. Hayes overcame each challenge she faced and went on to pursue her dreams of becoming a teacher.
“One thing that I always asked myself when I was a teacher in the classroom was, ‘Is this the education I would want for my child?’ And if I couldn’t answer yes every single time, then it meant that I had to do something different. Not that kids had to learn different, not that parents had to engage different, that I had to do something different. And I still believe that today.”
As a high school teacher, she also reinforced her belief in the importance of quality early education.
“When I got a student in my class as a high schooler, I could immediately identify who had child care access, who was a Head Start student. Their skills were different, their language was different, their verbal acquisition was different, and that followed them all the way into their high school years. It cannot be replaced,” she explained.
To the Halls of Congress
As a member of Congress, she continues to carry the lessons she learned about comprehensive education practices and the importance of a strong, early start to her work. In her short time in Congress, Rep. Hayes has already emerged as a strong advocate for children and families through her work on the House Committee on Education and Labor and on the Freshman Working Goup on Addiction.
“I sit on a committee where we’re always talking about the bottom line, about how much something costs, about what can be cut. And I say, this is not a political issue, this is a morality issue,” Rep. Hayes explained regarding the importance of investing in children.
Representative Hayes is also dedicated to supporting all educators and early childhood professionals. “Part of the conversation that is often missing is advocacy for the profession, for the people that we’re putting in front of children. While we all are invested in the output of children, and improving success for children, that cannot happen without supporting the people that we’re putting in front of our children.”
“People say, ‘How can you advocate for the profession?’ As if by default, you’re then taking away from student resources. I tell you, I want both. I want resources for students and resources for the people that we’re putting in front of our students. I want to make sure that everyone who stands in front of kids is treated like the professional that they are–that they’re provided with the resources, and the education, and the mentoring, and the background, and the supports on the ground that they need to engage the students. I’m unapologetic in that respect, and I will continue to be as long as I am a member of this body.”
Head Start Champion
Representative Hayes’ dedication to children and families led to her recognition as one of NHSA’s 2020 Pledge Award winners. In her remarks, Rep. Hayes pledged to keep u her work as a Head Start ally.
“For so many kids and so many communities, and I know this firsthand, organizations like Head Start are their only option,” she said. “It’s not like their parents can move to another neighborhood if they don’t like the schools, so what is presented before them has to be the best option available. We have to make sure that not only do these programs thrive, but they expand! And that we’re not turning kids away, and that we’re supporting parents and we’re helping them to be partners in their kids’ academic journeys.”
NHSA’s Executive Director Yasmina Vinci and Board Chairman Damon Carson present Congresswoman Hayes with the Pledge Award for demonstrating a steadfast commitment to serving America’s most vulnerable children and families.
Representative Hayes also encouraged all members of the Head Start community to play their important roles in advocacy, too. “It can’t happen without federal legislation, without the funding behind it, without community support,” she said. “So it’s so important that everybody is a driver in different areas.”
“My work here in Congress is driven by the work that you’re doing because I recognize that education and access to educational opportunities opens the doors for a lifetime of success for all students,” Rep. Hayes said. “And Head Start works! Whether it be language acquisition, social skills, engaging with their peers, that is all critically important because if kids start off behind, they stay behind. I cannot overstress the impact of organizations like Head Start.”
“I want to make sure that the opportunities that were presented to me are available to any child who wants them. This is not so much about equality, but it’s about equity and it’s about access.”