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'Silver-Ribbon Panel' Calls for Upgrading 25-Year-Old Head Start

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Washington--On the eve of Head Start's 25th anniversary, a panel of experts last week called for substantial investments in staff salaries, training, and support services to help the Great Society centerpiece meet its mandate in a "new social context."

"Head Start should build on its legacy while it adapts to new challenges," said the 18-member "silver-ribbon panel," which included Head Start leaders, child-development experts, health and human-services professionals, and members of the business community.

The National Head Start Association convened the panel 10 months ago to chart a new course for the program to respond to changes in the family, the workforce, and the availability of early-childhood programs. Its recommendations are laid out in a report,"Head Start: The Nation's Pride, A Nation's Challenge," released on Head Start's silver anniversary, May 18.

Hailing its record as "a sound investment in our nation's future," the group noted that Head Start's blend of educational, social, and health services for low-income preschoolers and their parents has struck a responsive chord among policymakers, parents, and business leaders.

In Congressional debate last week on a bill to reauthorize Head Start, lawmakers also praised the program.

"Not since the G.I. Bill of Rights has Congress ever made such a productive investment," said Representative James Scheuer, Democrat of New York. The bill, passed overwhelming by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, embraces many of the panel's recommendations, including a mandate to serve all eligible preschool children by 1994. (See story, page 17.)

The panel argued in its report that ensuring the quality of Head Start programs should be the focal point of expansion efforts.

"Too often Head Start programs are forced by financial pressures to choose between serving more children or maintaining quality," said the panel. In many areas, it noted, program quality has been jeopardized by low wages and high staff turnover, inadequate transportation and facilities, and a lack of training and funds to serve "multi-problem families."

"The most significant issue is one of balancing improvements in quality with expansion of the program," said Sandra Kessler Hamburg, a panel member who is director of educational studies for the Committee for Economic Development.

Besides calling for full funding to serve all eligible children, the panel urged new arrangements to offer full-day services and serve more children at earlier ages. It also recommended that Head Start play a leadership role in forging links with schools, human-services providers, and businesses.

"We see Head Start becoming a model of quality, a catalyst for change, and a source of innovation within a network of services for young children and families," the group said.

"Because Head Start is the largest early-childhood program, it should continue to provide leadership for a cohesive and effective system of services," said Joan Lombardi, project director for the panel.

Benefits and 'Barriers'

Based on the premise that children who lack basic medical, educational, nutritional, and emotional attention need extra support to help them achieve their potential, Head Start offers a preschool experience combining those elements.

Since it was launched in 1965 as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty, the program has served more than 11 million children and families. Today, Head Start is funded at $1.4 billion and serves approximately 450,000 3- to 5-year-olds, roughly 20 percent of the eligible population.

To chart the program's future course, the panel reviewed studies and policy documents, sought input from national groups and experts, and heard testimony from more than 70 witnesses at hearings in Atlanta, Phoenix, and Washington. In addition, 1,400 parents and staff members responded to a survey on Head Start's progress and future.

Besides quoting parents' and staff members' positive views of the program, the panel cited studies showing it has reaped "immediate positive effects" on children's cognitive ability, self-esteem, and social behavior, as well as improvements in their physical health and a "favorable impact" on their families and communities.

Other program benefits highlighted by the panel included increasing children's access to medical and social services, involving parents in program operations, and aiding parents' own career development.

Despite Head Start's successes, however, the panel said inadequate funding has been "a serious barrier" to offering high-quality services responsive to today's families.

Since 1965, the panel noted, both the number of poor children and the negative life influences they face have intensified. Increasing numbers live in single-parent homes or in families plagued by substance abuse, homelessness, and illiteracy, or affected by AIDS, teenage pregnancy, or child abuse.

At the same time, the panel's report notes dramatic increases in the number of working women and families in which both parents must work ''to provide the bare essentials."

Head Start is also at a critical juncture, the panel said, as early-childhood education becomes a centerpiece of school reforms designed to bolster the nation's economic competitiveness. While growing numbers of states are funding preschool programs, it noted, some of these programs "lack the scope of services" offered by Head Start, and children from low-income families remain less likely to attend preschool than their more affluent peers.

More Demand, Less Capacity

While the need for services has increased, however, Head Start is facing "a decreased ability to recruit and retain qualified staff," the panel said. According to the report, 47 percent of Head Start teachers earned less than $10,000 in 1988, and the average salary for a beginning Head Start teacher with a B.A. was $12,000.

The panel also said training funds have not kept pace with program expansion and that programs are strapped by a shortage of affordable and appropriate facilities and overwhelmed by the demand to offer expanded counseling, home visits, and other support to growing numbers of families in severe distress.

Despite increases in the number of working parents, the panel added, only 15 percent of Head Start programs operate for the full day.

To address such concerns, the group urged that new funds be earmarked for pay raises, training, facilities, and oversight.

While supporting the use of non-Head Start funds to supplement services and extend program hours, the panel warned against "promoting a false dichotomy between care and education." It also called for funds to allow programs to provide full-day services; increase the number of support-staff members; and improve coordination of education, health, and social services. And it urged improved policies to train and involve parents.

Citing a need to intervene earlier in troubled children's lives and to provide more support for parents in the workforce or training programs during infants' critical years, the group also urged that "substantial progress" be made to serve more children under age 3 by the year 2000. Head Start now serves 13,000 children from birth to age 3 through its Parent and Child Centers and migrant programs.

The panel also called for revisions in Head Start standards, assessment policies, and staff-recruitment efforts to ensure that programs are "developmentally appropriate" and responsive to cultural and linguistic groups.

While early studies, such as the controversial 1969 "Westinghouse Report," tarnished Head Start's image by reporting that children's initial gains faded over time, more recent studies--among them a report released last month by Head Start directors--have focused attention on the program's long-term social benefits and the enthusiasm it has generated among participants, parents, and staff members. (See Education Week, April 25, 1990.)

"We are not naive about what can be achieved realistically by this one program against the complex and destructive forces suffered by children in a culture of poverty," said William H. Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business, who was quoted in the panel's report. "But in terms of providing children in poverty with a fair chance at an equal educational opportunity, [Head Start] has proven itself over the last 25 years."

Copies of the report are available for $6 each from the National Head Start Association, 1220 King St., Suite 200, Alexandria, Va. 22314. The report will be distributed free to association members.

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