Families & the Community

Head Start in Seattle Blending in Academics

By Linda Jacobson — April 09, 2003 10 min read
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Standing over what looks like a large sink, Pete Martinez and his son Ernesto take turns pouring red-colored water through funnels and tubes. The father, wearing dark pants and a gray, hooded sweatshirt, helps his son count how many scoops of liquid it takes to fill an empty Aquafina bottle.

“You know, at home it’s hard to get him into the bathtub,” says Mr. Martinez, chuckling at his son’s fascination with the water. “But once he gets in, he doesn’t want to get out.”

Mr. Martinez, who works in a furniture warehouse and took a personal day off to be here, is one of several fathers spending the morning with their children in the public Broadview-Thompson School’s Head Start classroom.

The morning science event is one way the Seattle school district has responded to the Bush administration’s priorities for Head Start— priorities that many backers of the federal preschool program for needy youngsters believe will tilt it too heavily toward academics. President Bush’s goals for this year’s scheduled reauthorization of the program include a greater emphasis on literacy and the encouragement of low-income fathers to be more responsible for their children.

Broadview-Thompson’s recent special gathering was designed to involve Head Start parents—especially fathers—in their children’s learning and to encourage them to continue similar activities at home. For some dads, this was their first opportunity to see what their sons or daughters do in school.

Across the room from Mr. Martinez, more parents sat with their children at a small table, where teacher Diana Tyree asked them to predict whether certain objects would sink or float in a bowl of water.

After the experiment, J.R. Noa helped his son Ramsey record the experience in the boy’s science notebook, a task that helps the preschoolers build an understanding of scientific concepts at the same time they’re learning language and early-writing skills.

“Can you write a 2?” Mr. Noa coaxed his son. “Yes you can. I’ve seen you write it before.”

Joseph Olchefske, the superintendent of the 47,600-student Seattle district, supports the president’s proposals to move Head Start from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services into the U.S. Department of Education, to allow funding for the program to flow through state agencies, and to give state leaders the flexibility to integrate Head Start into their state preschool initiatives.

“The more academic we can make it, the better,” the superintendent argued. “It’s nothing but an opportunity.”

Need-to-Know Basis

Seeing the district’s involvement in Head Start as a way to help close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their middle- class peers, the school system has already been aligning its Head Start program with state and local academic standards for the elementary grades.

“We need to translate [Head Start goals] into what kids need to know and be able to do when they enter kindergarten,” said MAK Mitchell, the director of the Seattle district’s office for community learning.

The Seattle district’s devotion to some of the same principles for an overhaul of Head Start held by President Bush is a stark contrast to what many supporters of the program have warned will happen if Congress approves the changes. They predict that less attention will be given to health and other social services— a big part of Head Start—and that states won’t adhere to the program’s performance standards, such as sharing governance of the program with parents. (“White House Plan for Head Start Test Draws Critics,” Jan. 15, 2003.)

In a recent press teleconference, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called the president’s plan “an enormous step backward.”

Even here, where the staff has willingly—even eagerly—adopted the kinds of changes that Mr. Bush and other administration officials would like to see, staff members acknowledge that they are concerned about the details and about the future of Head Start. The almost 40-year-old program is one of the most popular legacies of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.”

“What is exactly wrong with Head Start that we’ve got to fix?” said Jonathan Green, who supervises Head Start programs in four schools on the south side of Seattle.

Other Head Start directors in the Puget Sound area, especially those who operate in small, nonprofit agencies, say they’re afraid that even if school districts might not be affected by increased state involvement, their programs might get closed out.

The participation of both government and nonprofit agencies “has been a strength of Head Start,” said Robbin Dunn, the director of the Washington State Association of Head Start. “Those programs were programs because they were competitive.”

Others say they don’t see how the level of funding for their classrooms can remain the same if state administrators get involved.

Funding for Head Start, currently a $6.7 billion program, flows directly to local grantees, which can be school districts, social service agencies, or even community colleges. The program, which now serves roughly 900,000 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, is considered comprehensive because it provides medical, dental, and other services, in addition to an educational curriculum.

President Bush has recommended a modest increase of $148 million for the program for fiscal 2004. Serving all eligible children would require an additional $2.4 billion.

“I don’t want Head Start subject to the poor economy,” said Janice Yee, the executive director of the Denise Louie Education Center, a nonprofit agency here serving 181 children at four sites.

“If Head Start was fully funded, and if the state supported universal preschool, it might be different,” Ms. Dunn added. “But we’re vulnerable.”

Facing a $2 billion shortfall in its two- year, $23 billion budget, Washington state has already frozen funding for its Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, which is modeled after Head Start. To handle rising costs, the early-childhood programs significantly cut the number of children they could serve.

Windy M. Hill, the associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau for the federal Department of HHS, has been responding to such concerns all year.

It’s true, she said recently, that states submitting plans to the federal government under the revisions Mr. Bush is seeking would not have to “model the existing Head Start structure.”

But, she added, many states already use a variety of providers to offer early-childhood education and would likely continue to involve agencies in addition to the public schools. “States are already inclusive,” she said.

Ms. Hill also said she appreciates the improvements that programs like the ones in Seattle have put into place.

“But,” she added, “there seems to be a lack of awareness that that kind of quality is not consistent across the country.”

Building Literacy Skills

In Eileen Higa-Wegzyn’s Head Start classroom at Concord Elementary School here in Seattle, evidence that greater attention is being paid to literacy is everywhere. Children recognize their classmates’ names when their teacher slowly pulls one out of her shiny “magic envelope.” They sing a weather song, spelling out s-u-n-n-y. The pupils have made class books, which are laminated and displayed throughout the classroom.

“In every corner, there’s an opportunity for them to do writing,” said Jap-Ji Kaur Keating, the program manager for the district’s Head Start program.

Even though the district had already been focusing on literacy, Head Start teachers and staff members now have a more organized approach to the task after taking part in the Strategic Teacher Education Program, the Bush administration’s literacy-training initiative, said John Wrobleski, the district’s early-literacy specialist.

His job is to coach Head Start teachers districtwide on how to build children’s vocabulary and early-reading skills through the classroom environment and in their teaching practices.

Desks, mirrors, and other items are now clearly labeled in both English and Spanish in Ms. Higa-Wegzyn’s class, reflecting the large percentage of children in Head Start here who speak Spanish at home. In another class, the Cambodian words for the objects are also listed.

How to adapt the literacy initiative to the needs of children who speak other languages at home is an element that has been missing from the Bush administration’s message, according to the Head Start teachers and leaders here.

In the Seattle district alone, roughly 28 languages are represented, according to Ms. Keating.

Ms. Higa-Wegzyn said she tried to read books to her class with the help of an interpreter, but it became too distracting for the children. Now, the youngsters are divided into two groups to hear a story in either Spanish or English.

“All I was doing was teaching them to not pay attention,” she said.

She has also found herself placing more realistic expectations on her pupils, and now breaks down the storytelling process into smaller parts, such as asking them to act out parts of a story or identify the beginning, middle, and end.

“You can’t just read the book and ask them what happened,” she said.

No Cookie Cutters

Ms. Hill, the federal official, noted that because roughly 175 languages are represented among Head Start children nationwide, her bureau has tried to offer training sessions that address the needs of ethnically diverse groups.

“Programs are not required to fit into the same mold,” she said. “They have to tell us what they need, and we will respond accordingly.”

Ms. Keating has also developed a facet of the Head Start program here that responds to another priority for President Bush: encouraging healthy marriages and home lives for children. But instead of hiring “relationship counselors,” she’s using some unusual approaches.

For example, parents who attended the science and literacy activity at the Broadview-Thompson School received free tickets to the Pacific Science Center—courtesy of a Head Start parent who has been asking theaters, sports venues, and other local attractions to donate tickets. Admission to the downtown museum would normally cost a family of four more than $30, too high a price tag for most low-income parents.

“What do healthy families do? They have excursions,” Ms. Keating said about her efforts.

And at a dinnertime session at the district’s new Stanford Center—named for the late Superintendent John Stanford—a half-dozen parents, many with interpreters at their sides, gathered for a résumé workshop.

As they open their boxed-up sandwiches and listen to their children play in the room next door, Cindy Holland, the Head Start program’s community-resources liaison, starts off the meeting by explaining that simply filling out applications is no longer enough when hunting for a job.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a rocket scientist or if you’re just applying for a cashier job, they’re going to want a résumé,” Ms. Holland tells the group. “It’s how you get your foot in the door.”

The parents are furnished with a packet of résumé examples, including a list of attention-getting verbs they can use to describe their skills and work experience.

Ms. Keating’s goal is to help families stay together by helping them increase their incomes. “You can’t have a healthy marriage if poverty is sucking the life out of your marriage,” she said.

It’s those types of activities, however, that staff members here worry might be eliminated under Mr. Bush’s plan to sharpen the educational focus of Head Start.

Such parent- oriented activities, they say, are also steps toward the long-range goal of making poor and minority parents feel comfortable and welcome in the schools their children attend.

“Head Start is one of those places where they feel safe,” Ms. Holland said.

During the Broadview-Thompson School’s morning of science activities, Edgar Andrade watched as his 5-year-old daughter, Guetsu, squeezed soap bubbles out of the end of a turkey baster. As a maintenance engineer at a corporate apartment company, Mr. Andrade has a flexible schedule, and he said he would have visited the classroom when his 5th grade daughter was younger.

But, he said, “they never invited me.”


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