Secretary of Education John King was in Denver on Monday to speak with educators about how the state has improved its early childhood systems statewide, and how a $45 million federal grant helped the state bolster its efforts.

Anna Jo Haynes, a long time early education advocate, was on hand as King toured the center she ran for four decades and mingled with early education leaders.

Haynes, president emeritus of the Mile High Early Learning Center and co-chair of the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, spoke with Chalkbeat after King’s visit to share her thoughts on the discussion King had with educators and other issues facing early education in Colorado.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How has the early childhood education landscape changed since you started?

I’ve been involved for fifty years. I started as a child care health provider, then I was involved in bringing Head Start to Denver. That’s how I started.

It’s come a very long way. It was called day care, and I fought hard to say, “who takes care of days? We take care of children.” It became child care. Now we’re talking about early education, and we use that term all the time. Just in those terms you can see the difference.

I worked very closely with the Colorado Children’s Campaign at that time. My agency — and every board I ever had — not only let me, but encouraged me to be an advocate. With a nonprofit, you don’t always get that. I was able to do that because we were the largest provider of care in the city.

I stepped to the state level and got very involved with the founders of the children’s campaign. Advocacy has the been the biggest part of my life. I think we have to not only include parents but we must make sure that parents become advocates for their children, that they know they have a voice — and if they say so, it makes a huge difference.

Have you always been interested in early education? How did you figure out you were interested in it?

When I was in kindergarten, I had to go twice.

My mother dutifully walked me to kindergarten, and I walked back home. I didn’t want to be in kindergarten. I was afraid to be in kindergarten. I wasn’t ready to be in kindergarten. I stayed a second year. The teacher was smart enough to know I wasn’t ready, and my mother was smart enough to agree.

There wasn’t anything like early education or even day care in those days. I think I was bound and determined to be in this field and didn’t even realize it.

When Head Start started, as part of the war on poverty, Roy Romer — who eventually became our governor — was a senator. His wife ran a preschool and she said, can you help me bring federal dollars here so we can do something for low-income kids? That’s kind of how I started, and then went into Mile High.

[Then] we took a leap because we were the largest, and it was our obligation, we felt, to make sure that we worked in public policy, to make sure that advocacy was a large part of what we did. I’ve done that ever since.

When Secretary King asked the table what group wasn’t represented at today’s event, you and several others agreed that it was in fact parents. How could you bring them to the table?

It’s hard. Some of the parents in our low-income families are working two jobs just to survive.

We did something really interesting during the Civil Rights movement. I was the chair of the Congress of Racial Equality, and we cranked out old mimeographs — you don’t even know what that is, but it was before copy machines.

We set them out in the middle of the night, with data, about how they [black families] were not getting what the kids in the white side of town were getting. The Head Start parents didn’t even know I was doing that at night, as a volunteer.

What you have to do is think of unique ways to include parents, because they can’t do the traditional stuff. You’ve got to go out to their homes. You’ve got to have what I think are liaisons — those people who go out where the parents are, whether in it’s their church or the local laundromat, wherever. You give them statistics. We think they ought to know because they’re watching television. That’s not how they get it. They get it at church, they get it in different places.

People want to be involved with success. If they get involved, when they have a small success there is no stopping them. They realize, “I have a voice. I can say something, and somebody’s gonna pay some attention.” When they do that, they are not only better advocates for their own children, but also for everybody else’s child as well.

Is there anything else you think the state needs to focus on?

It’s a dream I’ve had forever, and it’s so great to be here because it’s coming true, and that’s building a system of early childhood. A system that parents can navigate, and it’s also a system of advocacy if you will.

I think when you put those things together, we now have a system.

How do we let people know there’s that system, that there’s access to it. Again, it’s communication to the people who will be using the service. I think that’s true in health, it’s true in education, it’s true in human services. These are all the departments where we’re looking at providing service to the people who need it the most. That’s what the state does. If we can take the system we’ve now built and make it stronger, and let parents know how to navigate that — even if parents can’t then get involved in a way like a movement or whatever, they’re gonna know their needs were met.

There’s something really special about that.

How do we make sure it continues and doesn’t just go away because now the money’s gone? The sustainability is critically important. We have to make sure we figure out a way to make sure we sustain the system that we’ve now built, because it’s a great system. It’s a wonderful system.