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Pilot Program Charts Steps to Success From Birth to Age 3

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Washington

A group charged with designing a new Head Start program for disadvantaged infants and toddlers has laid out an ambitious agenda to give parents and care-givers the tools they need to help such children succeed.

The pilot program for children up to age 3 was mandated in a bill that Congress passed this year to reauthorize the popular program for disadvantaged preschoolers. The act called for an advisory panel to help the Health and Human Services Department develop the program. (See Education Week, 05/04/94.)

The law stated that the demonstration project would receive only 3 percentor about $106 million of Head Start's total appropriation in fiscal 1995, which is $3.5 billion. Of that amount, about $80 million will go toward two existing federal programs serving poor families with children from birth to age 3.

Although the program is not expected initially to pay for large numbers of new centers or to reach huge numbers of children, experts said it could become a model for serving disadvantaged families more comprehensively.

Research in recent years has shown that birth to 3 is a critical age span and suggested that social and educational programs would have a greater chance of success if they reached families earlier. A widely publicized report issued last spring by the Carnegie Corporation of New York made a plea for such programs. (See Education Week, 04/20/94.)

The new program "can be a model for how to do it right," said Edward F. Zigler, a Yale University psychologist who helped found Head Start. Mr. Zigler also served on the advisory panel for the new program, which is being called Early Head Start.

The 40-member panel included other framers of Head Start, as well as federal officials, experts across the child-serving disciplines, parents, and representatives of community groups.

The report lays out principles for addressing the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language development of young children by providing prenatal, health, educational, and social services to families.

It calls for strong partnerships with parents and collaboration with other public and private programs for children, including Head Start centers, schools, child-care providers, and services for children with disabilities.

Head Start has been criticized in recent years for focusing more on increasing the numbers of children served than on maintaining program quality. But the panel's guidelines for Early Head Start stress the need for rigorous evaluation and monitoring.

"There's clearly a focus on quality," said Helen Blank, a panel member and the director of child care and development for the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund.

Quality Concerns

While praising the report's guiding principles, one panel member questioned whether it would impede efforts to improve existing Head Start programs.

Sarah Greene, the chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association, restated her group's concern that the birth-to-3 program could divert attention and funding from those efforts.

Because Congress authorized about $500 million less for Head Start than President Clinton had requested, it will be difficult to implement the improved training, technical-assistance, and accountability measures introduced in the Head Start reauthorization law, she said.

Ms. Greene also emphasized the need to back programs that have a strong record in serving younger children.

The reauthorization directed the Health and Human Services Department to give priority in awarding grants in the first three years to the federally financed comprehensive child-development projects and parent-child centers, and to strengthen migrant Head Start programs that serve children up to age 3.

Judith Jerald, a panel member who heads a child-development project in Brattleboro, Vt., said the panel's guidelines will help improve existing projects by placing more emphasis on training.

The design stresses that "people be well trained and be paid well enough to do this job, but also recognizes that these must be people who have the capability of building relationships" with children and families, she said.

Mr. Zigler said the program also should be "tied to welfare reform" to highlight the need for strong child-care programs that allow poor mothers to pursue jobs while giving children a better foundation for learning.

The department is expected to issue performance standards and a grant announcement for Early Head Start early next year.

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