Kitsap Community Resources (KCR) in Kitsap County, Washington has been serving its community for over 50 years, including operating Head Start and Early Head Start programs. They joined the very first cohort of the QI Network in early 2020, using the principles of continuous quality improvement (CQI) to several challenges in their programs.

Jill Brenner, KCR’s Director of Early Learning and Family Services, has worked in the early childhood field for over 30 years in a mix of private corporate care and not-for-profit care, then in Head Start since the late 1990s. John Hurley, KCR’s Deputy Director of Operations, has worked in early learning since about 2005. Prior to that, he worked at some summer camps and in general education.

EarlyIntel sat down with Brenner and Hurley over Zoom to find out how they’re using Head Start CQI to streamline their enrollment process, prepare for federal reviews, and guide the future of their organization. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What prompted you to join the QI Network?

John Hurley: We had gone down to a data training, when it was held in Long Beach. Jill had actually gone to the UCLA fellowship with Rick, so they started talking. For whatever reason, we always seem to be involved in pilots. So, we said, “Yeah, let’s give this a shot.” We’ve always kind of had a data approach. But this was the catalyst to push it a little bit further and a little bit harder than we had in the past.

Jill Brenner: It’s right in line with our thinking here, and so we decided to jump in.

Since joining the QI Network in 2020, you’ve had your FA1 review and you’re preparing for your FA2 review. How has the QI Network informed how you prepare for those reviews?

Jill Brenner: We were already a program that focused a lot on data to begin with. I think participating in QI has really upped that game for us. We looked at data, but we looked at a surface level. We take deeper dives now into the data and what it means for us. I think in preparation for the reviews, we know they want to know more than just what our numbers are. They want to know the whys behind things and so it helps us explain what’s going on within the program.

John Hurley: It’s been a catalyst to expand our data mindset and data approach into our everyday conversations, not just in the management team conversation, but we really have taken it down to even the site levels. That initial conversation was really, how do we build that culture, and that approach throughout our entire program? This was kind of the catalyst to say, “if we’re going to invest this type of funds, let’s just really go full bore into making it throughout the entire program.” When we created a team around QI, it was frontline staff as well as supervisors and directors and managers. We really want to start at the front and work your way up.

What do you love about your work in the QI Network? What has kept you coming back for the past several school years?

Jill Brenner: We’re both data geeks. But it also really helps us with improvements. We have staff members who are not data geeks, who see the value of really looking at things and making improvements, and they see improvements within the classroom and within the program. And that just drives them to also want to continue on.

John Hurley: I think part of it’s also been kind of the Weight Watchers approach. We’ve had coaching calls, and so we’re like “we need to get this stuff done” so that when we have our coaching call, we don’t show up empty-handed. Between the showcases that we do twice a year, where we kind of show the projects we’ve been working on, and the coaching calls that we have, we’ve always gotten stuff done. It’s that push to make sure that we actually progress with things.

We’ve completely restructured and reorganized our department since our previous director retired. Jill stepped into the director role, and I moved into the deputy director role, and a big part of my role is around the QI process. We’ve had an eye on our QI processes as we restructured.

What areas are you working on this year?

John Hurley: Finding staff has been a challenge. We have a solid core, some of them have been with us for over 30 years and even some of the newish ones have been with us for three, four years or longer. It’s not like we’re losing staff left and right. But we have a small group that keeps turning over. The same positions keep turning over again and again and finding replacements has been a challenge.

We also have sites that aren’t full, so we’re looking at changing program options, changing those. A lot of that comes down to our QI approach, and we’re looking at if what are we offering is what our community really wants and needs. It’s definitely informed our decision making that way.

Any promising practices or improvements you can share?

Jill Brenner: Three years is really a relatively short period of time to be involved in a project. I think when you look back and reflect on everything that we have accomplished in that time period, it’s darn good. Like John said, our overall goal going in was for data to become a culture in our program. When we look at going into the FA2 review, and we look at how staff have taken on data, we can really see it in the everyday work more so than we did four years ago. Data has become kind of the DNA of the program throughout, because we do see our teachers using it a lot more than they were prior to that. That’s really promising, and we can only improve on that.

John Hurley: The projects that we’ve done have been fairly significant and had so many impacts. The first one that we really took on was looking at our enrollment process. We took a pretty deep dive into it. Thanks to COVID, we had some extra free time, and we looked at how cumbersome it was on families. There had been families who had said for years about how difficult and challenging and paperwork-driven it was. We drastically shortened our enrollment process. We’ve turned what used to be almost a two-week process into less than a week, sometimes as little as a few days from application to child start date. That’s been a huge improvement.

Jill Brenner: Inclusion is on the mind of a lot of programs right now. We actually have an inclusion model here that we’ve had for well over 20 years that works really well with our school district. It is partnering in classrooms with children with disabilities. Inclusion really is embedded into that system. I would say that’s a promising practice for us.

You mentioned that teachers are using more data. Can you share more about that?

Jill Brenner: Our previous model was they would look at their reports right after a checkpoint, and develop goals and kind of look at what their next quarter was going to look like. We got to thinking that was not often enough, so every month, they run a classroom profile, even if it’s not finalized to see where their kids are at. If there’s any progress from month to month, that way, they can see what group practices they need to focus on or individual kid things they need to adjust. This is just part of their routine.

They used to fill out a quarterly report for us. Now instead of that report, they just jot down what their adjustments are. We call it the playbook where they keep all their lesson plans, reports, and day-to-day activities. That’s where they keep track of adjustments they’ve made. They’re getting more intentional and more frequent than they used to be.

Has your involvement with the QI Network impacted any management practices in your program? If so, how?

Jill Brenner: I think it’s made us more humble. As a management team, you think one thing, but until you dive into the data and into what’s really in the minds of the folks that you’re serving, you have to have a more of an open mind and you have to be ready to adjust when things aren’t the way you think they are. That is one thing it’s done for us.

We look at the Head Start management wheel and we’re able to dive into those different systems a little deeper than we previously would have. It makes us look at the community needs assessment differently.

What surprised you most about CQI and what have you learned from this process?

John Hurley: I think what surprised me most is how much we were already doing. Having more intentionality around it was an important part of the big change that we had to make. We were both very data-minded but now it’s a little bit more intentional when we do that and we do it more collectively as a team instead of just as individuals.

Jill’s always been that way and she was one of my mentors. She would always steer me in that direction. You can’t go to her empty handed, you have to come up with a reason, some data to back it up. Now we have that expectation amongst everybody, so that’s been a big change in our practices. We were already doing pretty well, but here are some tweaks that we need to make.

Jill Brenner: I think we also rely on more qualitative data than we used to. The quantitative is great—you have the numbers to back everything up—but using empathy interviews, and really understanding where people are coming from has become part of that data process for us. The numbers might say one thing, but the words coming out of the empathy interviews are another thing. We really have to take all of that and balance it. I think that was a surprising thing for us.

What are your future goals for your program?

Jill Brenner: Well, we’re getting ready for our five-year grants. There is some restructure in how our programs are going to have to look model-wise, both for fiscal reasons and for our community. Because the six-hour classes are filling, and none of our community partners are going to longer days, so we need to make sure that we have those options available for families. That is one of the big goals. Our agency, although quite embedded in the community, and has been around for more than 50 years, is experiencing its own change. We’ve had a couple of different executive directors during our time here, one of them was onboard for 42 years. We’re regrowing some of our systems as an agency. Our goal is to help lead some of the work for the agency, but also evolve with it. We’re old but young again.