Equity & Diversity

Born Amid Tumult, Head Start Deeply Rooted in Mississippi

By Christina A. Samuels — August 05, 2014 5 min read
Teauna Poole-Hunter watches her daughter Destiny Fairley, 7, center, and son Antonio Steel, 5, sack-race outside her home in Belzoni, Miss. Both children attended Head Start.
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A visit to the Mississippi Delta offers clear evidence of how Head Start has earned nearly 50 years of staying power.

This flat, fertile region between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers is rich in history and culture. It is also home to some of the poorest counties in the poorest state. About 22 percent of Mississippians live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data, compared with 15 percent of the nation’s population as a whole.

Based here in the state capital, Friends of Children of Mississippi is the Head Start grantee for the Delta region, operating 28 centers in 15 counties that serve 4,000 children. The program supports children and parents, provides economic sustenance in rural areas where well-paying jobs are few, and helps connect families to other services, such as job training.

Teauna Poole-Hunter, who lives in Belzoni, Miss., attended Head Start as a child and is now a private preschool teacher. Her children—Destiny, 7, Antonio, 5, and Ashton, 4—are all Head Start graduates or current pupils. They have come home from the program showing off how they know their letters and numbers—Antonio likes to pretend that he’s a teacher now, and Destiny was recently identified for gifted classes. Ms. Poole-Hunter has also taken on a leadership role with the Head Start provider, serving on its policy council.

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The policy council “helps me to get the insight into what Head Start really means,” Ms. Poole-Hunter said.

Stephanie Redmond, 41, another Head Start graduate, grew up in Louise, Miss., a town of 300. Her mother placed her in Head Start at age 4, and now she works for Friends of Children, managing a program that provides training to low-income residents in home-health-aide work and phlebotomy, two positions in demand in the area.

Few other child-care options existed for Ms. Redmond’s family at the time, she said. But the Head Start program encouraged her mother to volunteer, and her mother eventually earned an associate degree and spent more than 29 years working at the center, primarily as a teacher’s aide.

“I firmly believe, if I had not received that ‘head start,’ maybe I would not have been able to go to college,” Ms. Redmond said, who graduated from Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena in 1995, with a degree in speech communication and rhetoric. “Yes, it does work. And it’s very much needed.”

Politics and Civil Rights

Head Start has woven itself into communities throughout the country, but in Mississippi, it comes with a history also linked to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

The first Head Start provider in the state, the Child Development Group of Mississippi, was one of the largest programs operating anywhere in the country when the Head Start program was launched in 1965. The group operated 85 centers, serving 6,000 children throughout the state, according to The Birth of Head Start, a 2005 book by Maris Vinovskis.

The program quickly ran afoul of the white power structure in Mississippi. Opponents such as Senate Appropriations Committee member John Stennis, D-Miss., said it was focused on promoting integration and black militants. Under political pressure, the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversaw Head Start and was led by Sargent Shriver, the top anti-poverty official for President Lyndon B. Johnson, pulled the Mississippi program’s funding after that first summer.

Destiny Fairley works on her multiplication.

Other community groups stepped into the breach left by the defunding of the Child Development Group. They included Friends of Children—so named because the early organizers agreed they were all friends, coming together to serve children. Marvin Hogan, then a football coach at a two-year college in Clarksdale, Miss., was called by his father to help with the nascent organization.

When the younger Mr. Hogan arrived on the scene, he asked to see “the books,” or any other financial records of the group.

“They said, ‘We don’t have any money, so why do we need books?’ ” said Mr. Hogan, who in October will mark his 48th year as the leader of Friends of Children.

The group operated for 18 months without any federal support; it received private grants and relied on volunteers. In 1967, Friends of Children became a delegate agency providing Head Start services under the auspices of Tougaloo College in Jackson. In 1980, the program became a direct grantee.

Great Strides

One element that has not changed, Mr. Hogan said, is that the program wanted to support families as well as children.

“This was a chance for parents to have something to say about the structure of the education of their children,” Mr. Hogan said. “They didn’t have that say in the state at that time.”

In addition to Friends of Children’s expansion of its work to job-training programs, which was done through private grants, the program is partnering with local school districts—something that would have been unthinkable in the 1960s, Mr. Hogan said. In five Delta school districts, a Head Start teacher and a district teacher will be working together in the same classroom starting this fall with Head Start students. They will also receive joint professional development and planning time.

Part of the money for the preschool program came from a state early-childhood-funding competition, said Suzanne Hawley, the superintendent of the 2,100-student Quitman district. The partnership with Head Start helped sell the state on providing more money to Quitman, she said.

The district will now be able to offer 140 full-day classroom spaces for 4-year-olds, which is enough for everyone in the district who wants to enroll, Ms. Hawley said. Parents have already called to make sure their children are on the rolls.

“These are all our children,” Ms. Hawley said. “We have to do the best we can for all of them.”

Despite Head Start’s long history in the state, Mississippi still lags on many educational indicators. Its scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, were the second-lowest in the country in 2013 in 4th grade reading and math. The achievement gaps between black students and white students, as well as between poor students and their more-affluent peers, remain wide.

Studies showing that Head Start gains disappear by the time children reach 3rd grade pose a question for the K-12 education system, not Head Start, said Carol Burnett, the executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, in Biloxi.

“If a child enters school better prepared, the focus needs to be on what’s happening in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade,” said Ms. Burnett, who also oversees a program in Biloxi that provides services through Early Head Start, which works with pregnant women and children up to age 2.

“We have mountains of data that early child care improves children’s later outcomes,” she said.  And Head Start “has set the bar for early-childhood programming in the country.”

Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Born Amid Tumult, Head Start Deeply Rooted in Mississippi

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