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Coordination Between Head Start, Schools Urged

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Washington

In a report released last week, a national panel urges that efforts to bolster the quality of Head Start programs while expanding and refocusing services to fit today's families include a reform strategy stressing coordination between Head Start and the public schools.

The 47-member Advisory Committee on Head Start Quality and Expansion was formed last June to help guide an expansion of the federal preschool program that President Clinton is expected to seek, and to address concerns about uneven program quality raised by the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general.

The panel, which included early-childhood experts, federal officials, Congressional aides, and local Head Start administrators, submitted its final report to Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala last week.

Like an earlier draft that surfaced last fall, the final report recommends detailed steps to improve staffing and management, make services more responsive to an increasingly complex set of family problems, and build partnerships between local, state, and national early-childhood initiatives. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)

Besides serving more children and making more services available all day and year-round, the report recommends that a new panel be formed to explore ways to serve children from birth to age 3.

At a news briefing last week, Mary Jo Bane, the H.H.S. assistant secretary for children and families, said the panel "recognized the importance of the zero-to-3 years.'' But it did not agree on "how big or how fast'' efforts to serve that group should be, she noted.

Quality Said Top Priority

Ms. Shalala said that serving younger children ties in with the Administration's goal of creating a "seamless'' system of interventions from prenatal care through the early grades. But she said the top priority is "to improve and level up the quality'' of existing services as the program expands.

The report calls for more "continuity and coordination'' between Head Start and schools to offer "high-quality comprehensive services'' through the primary grades.

"If there is a break in the continuity of such services, it is disruptive to parents and children and can threaten potential gains,'' it says.

While past attempts to ease the transition between Head Start and elementary school have tended to put most of the onus on Head Start, the report says that federal education dollars should be used to foster school reforms that can help sustain Head Start gains, such as high standards, more "responsive'' assessment, improved teacher training, increased parent involvement, expanded support services, and an emphasis on "opportunity for all children to achieve their potential.''

The panel also urges joint training of Head Start and school personnel and training for parents in how to work with the schools.

It also cites the need for better local, state, and federal coordination in early-childhood programs and for links between Head Start and special education, family-literacy programs, health and welfare reform, and national service.

Improving Program Quality

Recommendations focused on program quality include:

  • Developing model staffing plans, providing mentor teachers, improving training and reducing caseloads for staff members who work with families, raising salaries, and creating career-development ladders.
  • Updating performance standards and strengthening management training and practices.
  • Improving training for federal personnel, and improving technical assistance.
  • Retooling federal oversight and establishing a process to correct deficiencies and defund low-performing programs if necessary.

The report also recommends steps to upgrade Head Start facilities and to conduct and apply new research on Head Start.

Several national children's groups last week praised the report's comprehensive focus and bipartisan appeal, as did advisory-panel members asked to testify at a hearing of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

But Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said more emphasis should be placed on making it easier to blend Head Start money with other child-care funds than on adopting proposals that would make Head Start more costly.

A group of senior Republican members of the House Education and Labor Committtee, while generally backing the report, urged that any funding hikes "go hand in hand'' with steps to boost quality.

While hinting that President Clinton's 1995 budget will include a "substantial'' investment in Head Start, Ms. Shalala said that better management will help keep costs down and that it is wrong to assume quality improvement "always costs more money.''

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