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Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as Goodling Meshes Priorities With 'Even Start'

Goodling Meshes Priorities With 'Even Start'

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Years before he came to Congress, Rep. Bill Goodling began sowing the seeds of a federal family-literacy program.

As a school superintendent in southern Pennsylvania in 1967, Mr. Goodling found that, despite years of federal funding targeted to the poor, children from such families were not good readers or learners. In response, he made sure the Spring Grove Area School District's early-childhood specialist visited preschoolers and their parents at home, showing both better ways to learn to read together.

"It made all the difference in the world," Mr. Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who now chairs the House education committee, recalled in a recent interview. ''It took us so long to understand that family literacy is the name of the game. If you can't deal with the whole family, you're not going to break the cycle."

Today, the Even Start program--crafted into federal law by Mr. Goodling the congressman more than 10 years ago--serves about 31,000 families in 700 locations nationwide. It combines adult basic education, parenting training, and early-childhood reading lessons for eligible families.

Even Start is relatively small, but Mr. Goodling--who also sponsored reading legislation last year focused on teacher preparation--said the results-based, flexible program represents his vision of what federal education policy should be. And now, he is focusing on that vision as he leads the Republican majority in its first chance to put its stamp on the 34-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the comprehensive law that governs Even Start and most other federal K-12 programs.

Linking Services

The hallmarks of Even Start, according to Mr. Goodling and others, are: requiring schools, families, and community partners to work together; offering those local entities the chance to tailor the program to their needs; focusing on quality of service over quantity served; and requesting consistent, constructive evaluation.

"This legislation is one of the best I've ever seen," said Jennifer Howard, the Even Start state coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education. Even Start "talks about what is important for families to be able to move out of poverty and illiteracy."

Eligible parents study for the General Educational Development certificate or take classes in basic adult education, parenting, and job training. Their children, age 8 and under, take up activities designed to improve their literacy skills. At home, parent and child read together, draw, tell stories, and otherwise acquire language skills together.

Many participating parents also confront poverty, low self-esteem, and abusive relationships as they try to raise their own educational levels and work prospects so they can give their children an "even start" in competing with more fortunate students.

A Department of Education report on the federally mandated evaluations of the program from 1994 to 1997, "Even Start: Evidence From the Past and a Look to the Future," said last month that the initiative had grown significantly and that adult and child participants did reach goals such as earning the GED credential and doing well on language tests. But even the most successful families still needed more intensive programs, the report concluded.

In a departure from the much larger federal Head Start program for low-income preschoolers, Mr. Goodling got school districts directly involved in Even Start. Even Start dollars are first channeled to states, and school districts must partner with a community group or business to qualify for state grants, which usually run between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. Head Start centers, by comparison, are generally run independently of schools.

Annette Bridges, who is the state Even Start coordinator in Kentucky, also contrasted the program with Head Start.

"Even Start is not a direct provider of early-childhood services," she said. "It's not a direct provider of adult education. Even Start is the glue that brings them all together to plan and target services. And that's a challenge."

Quality Over Quantity

Even Start's budget and scope have grown this decade. In 1989, it served approximately 2,500 families, compared with the 31,000-plus today. The grants to local projects, administered by schools and community groups, have been competitively awarded by the states since 1992.

Still, Mr. Goodling wants to keep the program focused on teaching a relative few very well.

That puts educators used to counting heads to meet federal and state formulas into a different frame of mind, Ms. Bridges said. "It's not so much how many families, it's what we're doing with the families we serve," she noted.

Mr. Goodling, who in his days as a school administrator grew tired of what he saw as duplicative federal programs with individual budgets and paperwork, believes quality is best achieved locally. His attitudes about restoring control and increasing aid to local districts dovetail with his party's larger education agenda and offer a foretaste of this year's ESEA reauthorization debate.

"I want to make sure there's enough leeway for local areas to determine how they can make these programs work," he said.

Lisa E. Levangie, a co-director of Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union Even Start, based in Hardwick, Vt., appreciates the flexibility of Even Start, which she said sets it apart in helping parents who are going to work under new welfare laws. "There are a lot of barriers, and we work with the toughest families," Ms. Levangie said."They know we have to meet with us for an hour and with an adult educator for an hour. We really try to put parents in the driver's seat."

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Pages 19,21

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