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Making the Connection

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Carpentersville, Ill.

In the main hallway at the Dorothy deLacey Early Childhood Education Center here, a patchwork of interconnected collages created by students depicts different aspects of family life.

The varied styles and textures of the tableau, notes Principal Jane A. Schumacher, capture how "children move along a continuum of growth and development.''

Fittingly, the children who created the collage are participants in a project whose special mission is to meet children's needs as they move along that continuum of learning.

The deLacey school, designed to serve children from birth to age 8, is the centerpiece of the federal Head Start-Public School Early Childhood Transition Demonstration Project in Illinois, which includes eight schools in three districts in the Elgin-Carpentersville area.

The federal grant program, enacted in the last reauthorization of Head Start, has been operating in 32 sites nationwide since 1991. Its aim is to extend into the years from kindergarten to 3rd grade the teaching styles and family services that have earned Head Start high marks in serving disadvantaged preschoolers.

Legislation nearing final Congressional approval would extend the three-year grant projects' authorization until 1998. Allowable funding would rise to $35 million annually, bolstering not only those projects but also other transition activities.

Not Fade Away

Public debate in recent months over how to strengthen Head Start has focused largely on improving program standards. But experts say the transition projects offer a promising way of addressing another longstanding concern: that the early advantage that Head Start gives children in school fades by the time they reach 3rd grade.

The transition program includes rigorous national and local evaluation components to test the hypothesis that providing "continuous, comprehensive Head Start-like services will maintain and enhance the early gains achieved by Head Start children.''

The transition projects require collaboration among schools, Head Start centers, parents, and community agencies. They are designed to help restructure classrooms, offer health and social services, spur parent involvement, and boost parents' role in decisionmaking.

Many of the projects span multiple districts and schools; the one in Idaho is statewide.

"Most demonstration projects bite off a little bit,'' observes Martha Phillips, the project director for the national evaluation, which is being coordinated by the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Civitan International Research Center. "The scope of this project in terms of its service provision and potential impact is astounding.''

Seamless Services

Fostering the school reforms needed to promote developmentally appropriate learning and the agency partnerships needed to offer school-linked services has not been easy, according to Ms. Phillips and others involved in the projects.

Phasing Head Start-style parental involvement into schools has been a slow process, moreover, and some administrators fear that project components will falter once federal funding ends.

Even so, the Illinois site--known as Project Transfer--has collaborated so adeptly with other early-years programs that experts see a bright future for it.

The melding of aid sources may give the project "one of the best chances of continuing after the funding cycle is over,'' Ms. Phillips says, adding that it also offers "seamless services for families.''

"What's unique is the integrated programming,'' says Linda Kolbusz, the project director.

Besides joining forces with a five-county conglomerate of Head Start programs and school-improvement teams at target schools, Project Transfer interacts with such programs as Chapter 1 compensatory education; Even Start, a federal family-literacy and parenting-education program; Project Success, a statewide effort to link schools and social agencies; a state parenting program based on Missouri's Parents as Teachers model; and a state pre-K program for at-risk children.

The deLacey school also uses federal bilingual-education aid to offer instruction and services in Spanish for the area's Hispanic population.

"We are taking down the barriers between programs'' to reduce the labeling of families and build on their strengths, says Ruthann Ryan, the family-services coordinator for Project Transfer.

Service providers also include health, mental-health, and well-child agencies, a drug-counseling center, Elgin Community College, the United Way, and the Literacy Volunteers of America.

Family educators, family-school liaisons, and specialists in nutrition, early childhood, inclusion of special-needs children, and adult education are also involved. In addition, high school child-development students run an after-school program at one of the schools.

Beyond Tradition

Sharon Winkelman, the project's education-transition facilitator, helps organize orientations, conferences, visits, social events, and exchanges of information between programs, parents, and teachers to meet children's needs in the transition from Head Start to school. She also provides training to help teachers adopt more play-oriented, hands-on approaches in sync with Head Start's philosophy.

While services are offered at all target schools, deLacey is considered the model and offers the most comprehensive services.

In partnership with the Kane County health department and other area health agencies, deLacey runs wellness clinics offering immunizations, lead screenings, nutrition programs, mammograms, and well-baby services.

Families with infants and toddlers get home visits via Even Start and the state parenting program.

DeLacey maintains a closet of donated items for poor families, and has extended its reach beyond traditional school bounds in situations such as helping a family arrange a funeral for a young child and seeking shelter for a homeless family.

DeLacey also runs a child-care center so that parents can attend adult-education classes and other family activities at the school.

The school has an office for various service coordinators, rooms for conferences and crisis counseling, and an observation room for assessing children while they play.

The building, which also houses a Head Start program, serves some 500 3- to 7-year-olds and plans to eventually expand its programming up to the 3rd grade.

An assortment of multi-age, team-taught, and bilingual classrooms make liberal use of learning centers, hands-on methods, and thematic projects. One class is experimenting with techniques to reduce stress for troubled children using soft lights, music, plants, pillows, and special carpeting.

Even the most traditional teachers have been moving away from desks in rows and work sheets, thanks in part to training sessions such as the one Ms. Shumacher held at her own home.

"There is much more making the program fit the child than making the child fit the program here than anyplace I've ever taught,'' says Linda Anderson, who has taught for 18 years.

'Out on a Limb'

Although Project Transfer at first used an existing Head Start policy council as a vehicle to involve parents, it has since established a local governing board with parent-majority representation, as mandated by law.

The board, which is shared by the Even Start and Project Success programs, includes school, Head Start, community-agency, and civic-group representatives.

Nancy Umbdenstock and Patti Holmes, two mothers who also participate in deLacey's school-improvement team, say the project has opened new avenues for parents to participate in the school.

The project has helped spark "more substantial parental involvement'' than usual, including input into textbook and principal selection, adds Norm Wetzel, the superintendent of the district that includes Carpentersville.

While the transition projects over all have helped make schools and classrooms more inviting and responsive to parents, observers say, the extent to which they have been able to move parents into decisionmaking roles varies widely across sites. Moreover, such moves have sometimes met resistance from school boards.

There is also wide variability, Ms. Phillips notes, in the extent to which transition-project schools have been willing to adopt reforms--including rethinking standardized-testing practices--to offer Head Start-like classrooms.

All the schools in Project Transfer have taken "significant'' steps, says Ms. Winkelman, but none has moved as far as deLacey.

As children progress through the grades, "you have to go out on a limb'' beyond traditional methods, says Kevin Cross, a teacher who revamped his mixed 2nd- and 3rd-grade class at the Meadowdale School after one of Ms. Winkelman's workshops.

Jane Whitaker, the executive director of the Two Rivers Head Start program linked with Project Transfer, also suggests that the family-service model in place at deLacey is taking longer to "ripple down'' to other schools.

Principal Ron Brandt of the SunnyHill Elementary School admits he once feared too much involvement with families would "water down our educational role.'' But now, he says, he sees it making the school "more effective.''

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