Our Head Start network expands to serve more children and families with high-quality early learning.
We are very excited to announce that we have expanded our Head Start grantee network to an additional high-quality early learning center serving Chicago’s south suburbs. First Step Child Care in Richton Park serves 264 young children from 6 months to 5 years old, 14 of which are now funded through a federal Head Start pass-through grant from the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
For executive director Laura Foster, First Step Child Care is more than just a job: it is her family and her life’s work. When Laura and her husband, Carl, moved the center to its current location, they built their home above the school. Laura’s daughter helps run First Step, and she and her family—including three children— also live in a separate apartment above it. One of those children works at First Step as well, making it a three-generation family business.
That sense of family permeates the walls and atmosphere of First Step, and the children and parents they serve become part of that family.
When she’s not in the classroom, on the playgrounds, supervising the kitchen or coaching her 44 staff members, Laura sits just inside the front door and sees everyone coming and going. “Every parent waves, they don’t just walk by, because we’re connected. They know how much I care about their child and that immediately forms a bond and trust.”
“I’m proud of everything at First Step—the advancements children make, the compassion of staff, the warm friendly environment. You won’t walk in the door for 30 seconds before someone speaks to you warmly.”
Laura and Carl met when they were both teachers in the Chicago Public Schools system. When Laura rose to an assistant principal position, she quickly learned firsthand that children need a solid early childhood foundation or else they struggle in kindergarten and first grade. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education (with a minor in child development) and a master’s degree in educational administration, Laura knew that it was time to help fill the quality early childhood education void for low-income children.
She and Carl opened First Step in 1998. They were quickly embraced by the community and in 2009, moved to their present location in a custom-built center tailored to the needs of young children. With rising community demand and a waitlist exceeding 100 children, they expanded the building to serve even more children in 2011.
“When I heard about the wonderful things Laura was doing at First Step, I knew that we had to be a part of it,” says Deborah Hampton, Ounce director of Grantee Support Services.
For Laura, partnering with the Ounce and becoming a Head Start grantee is the next rung on the quality ladder that she is continually climbing. Her program used a curriculum identical to Head Start’s and was already at or exceeding Head Start standards in every way but one: the requirement that every classroom have a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood.
“I would love to see every teacher at First Step have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood. We were able to hire one with this funding, and I hope to see all my three- and four-year-old classrooms become Head Start with the highest quality teachers and assistants,” says Laura. “And the Ounce professionalism and support is unmatched, the support is phenomenal. I am so proud and thankful to work with them.”
At the Ounce, we are just as proud to call First Step Child Care a partner. In addition to an unerring commitment to quality, Laura and her team never forget what is at the heart of their work – young children and their families.
“The children, the relationships we’ve built with parents, the environment and atmosphere is one of joy,” says Laura. “You walk down the halls and hear squealing, laughing, silliness.”