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Stress Head Start Quality, but Spotlight 0-3, Panel Says

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WASHINGTON--Members of a panel plotting a strategy to revitalize Head Start will urge that the bulk of new funding go toward improving quality and expanding services, but that a small share be set aside for a pilot program for children under 3.

"There seemed to be broad agreement about the priorities and direction for building a new, exciting Head Start,'' Mary Jo Bane, the Health and Human Services Department's assistant secretary for children and families, concluded last week after the panel met here.

Head Start, the popular anti-poverty program designed to give needy 3-to-5-year-olds an educational and social boost, has expanded significantly in recent years, but has faced increased scrutiny in the past year.

Secretary of Health and Human Donna E. Shalala formed the Advisory Committee on Head Start Quality and Expansion last June to provide direction for a major expansion proposed by President Clinton while addressing criticisms that had surfaced in reports by her department's inspector general. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

The reports, which sounded an alarm about uneven quality, lax management, and insufficient accountability at some Head Start centers, fueled debate on how to insure that new funds are well spent.

The 45-member panel, which includes early-childhood experts, federal officials, Congressional aides, and local Head Start administrators, met last week to refine a draft of its recommendations. The final report is expected next month.

The draft report offers detailed recommendations for improving staff recruitment, training, and salaries; strengthening management; and promoting strategic planning to make expansion more effective. It also outlines steps for upgrading Head Start facilities, federal program oversight, and research.

Besides reaching more eligible children, the report urges that Head Start programs expand services to meet the changing needs of families. Suggestions include offering broader support services and full-day, full-year programs for children whose parents work or go to school full time.

New Initiative Overemphasized?

Some news reports published last month based on leaked copies of the draft headlined the birth-to-age-3 initiative as the group's most significant proposal. But the panelists last week agreed that the final report should place the highest priority on improving program quality.

"Zero-to-3 issues should not be the overriding recommendation perceived as coming from this committee,'' said Lee Cowen, a Republican aide on the House Education and Labor Committee. "This committee should stress improvement of the existing structure.''

To avoid "overpromising'' an intent to reach all infants and toddlers, Edward F. Zigler, a Yale University psychologist and a co-founder of Head Start, said the report should characterize the birth-to-3 effort as a limited demonstration program in keeping with Head Start's mission as a "national laboratory.''

Panelists also agreed to stress the need for a new planning group to design the pilot.

"If we try to deal with zero-to-3 in any detail, it will be detracting'' from the advisory panel's main mission, said Dr. Julius B. Richmond, another Head Start pioneer and a professor of health policy emeritus at the Harvard University Medical School.

But panelists also said that serving younger children is one of the report's "sexiest'' points and that the report should stress its significance.

"If we miss this opportunity,'' argued Helen Blank, a senior program associate with the Children's Defense Fund, "in the long run we will be weakening Head Start.''

The group also rallied behind a suggestion by William Galston, a deputy assistant for domestic policy to President Clinton, to explain clearly why reaching younger children has become critical. He and others suggested highlighting research on the vulnerable birth-to-3 period, child-care issues arising from welfare reform, and promotion of "two-generational'' programs to spur family literacy.

'More Positive Track'

The panel agreed not to put a price tag on its proposals, but discussed laying out priorities more clearly and making the recommendations on quality and expansion "bolder.'' Mr. Zigler suggested directing H.H.S. to craft a work plan specifying timetables and funds needed to go forward.

But Michael Iskowitz, a counsel to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, alerted the panel that Congress is likely to begin work on legislation to reauthorize Head Start early in 1994, before some of the panel's suggestions--such as the formation of a group to design a birth-to-3 program--take hold.

Kimberly Barnes-O'Connor, the children's-policy coordinator for the Senate committee's Republican staff, urged that the report highlight the need to better integrate existing services for younger children.

Panelists also urged that a section focusing on Head Start partnerships and federal, state, and local collaboration promote linkages with the private sector, health-care-reform and welfare-reform efforts, the child-care community, and all relevant Education Department programs.

Others suggested that Head Start should be tied to school-reform efforts, and that the Administration for Children and Families should explore ways to make it easier to coordinate funding for early-childhood programs from various sources.

Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed concern before the meeting that the draft did not go far enough in pushing for reforms.

But he voiced confidence afterward that the discussion had moved the report "on a much more positive track'' toward bolstering quality, expanding interaction between Head Start and other pre-K programs, and placing a "renewed emphasis'' on working with schools to help maintain Head Start gains.

Key Recommendations of the Head Start Advisory Panel

  • Improve staff recruitment, training, and compensation
  • Improve local management practices, policies, and training
  • Provide support to secure better facilities
  • Retool federal monitoring and oversight
  • Strengthen the role of research
  • Assess family needs and plan strategically to meet them
  • Reach families now unserved
  • Increase parent involvement and family support
  • Promote full-day and full-year services
  • Establish a group to develop model program for children under age 3
  • Provide continuity between Head Start and elementary school programs
  • Promote state and local collaboration
  • Link Head Start to other national initiatives

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