Early Childhood

For Head Start, A Marathon Run

By Linda Jacobson — April 24, 2007 11 min read
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Jesse Erickson, 4, practices with scissors at the Tillicum Head Start program, in Tillicum, Wash. The pioneering federal program is up for reauthorization.

“You know, Hector, you don’t have to eat it, but why don’t you just try it?” urged Michele Gonzalez, an associate teacher in a Head Start classroom here on the campus of Valencia Elementary School, east of Los Angeles.

As the children nibbled on pear slices, Ms. Gonzalez got them to talk about the classroom materials they wanted to use during “work time.” Some headed for the housekeeping area, others set up farm sets with plastic animals, and a few sat on the floor listening to songs about colors while they followed along in large books.

Meanwhile, in a back office, parents gathered for a monthly meeting after dropping off their children.

The nutritional, social, and educational needs of disadvantaged children—combined with opportunities for parents to be involved—have been elements of the Head Start program since it started more than 40 years ago as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Teacher Yomaira Johnson explains the use of scissors to Jesse Erickson, 4. Head Start programs offer comprehensive services to preschoolers.

“For disadvantaged folks, the comprehensive services have always been the flagship” of the federal child-development program, said Channel Wilkins, the director of the Office of Head Start, part of the federal government’s Administration for Children and Families.

But as federal debate over reauthorization of the program drags on for a fourth year, Head Start finds itself coping with pressures that its founders might not have anticipated.

In some locations around the country, Head Start grantees that have served communities for decades have been forced to promote their services or risk losing children to state-funded programs that have become increasingly popular.

Supporters of Head Start, which has a budget of about $6.8 billion for the current fiscal year, also say they have had to endure flat funding in recent years.

The program’s adaptability is evident here at the Valencia site, which is run by Options, a private, nonprofit child-care and human-services agency based in nearby West Covina.

Next to the portable building housing the Head Start class are two more classrooms called Child Start—a collaboration involving federal Head Start money and state child-care funding that allows low-income working parents to have full-day, year-round care for their preschoolers.

The partnership with the California Department of Education—like similar arrangements throughout the country—shows how “a national program with local roots,” as Mr. Wilkins calls it, can retain its identity, but still accommodate the needs of parents and an ever-expanding landscape of early-childhood-education programs.

“In 1965, they were the only kid on the block,” said W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “In 2005, that’s just not true.”

Competing Pressures

From the standpoint of the National Head Start Association, the Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents Head Start’s employees and families, the program has been on the defensive over the past several years.

Supporters say Head Start had to fight against what they labeled as an effort by the Bush administration to “dismantle” the program—first by moving it to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services and second, by funding the program through block grants on a pilot basis for a handful of states.

Sarah Greene, the president of the National Head Start Association, said the intense spotlight on the program started early this decade, in part with some Republican members of Congress highlighting the fiscal troubles of certain grantees, leaving the public with the impression that mismanagement was widespread. (“Hefty Head Start Salaries Prompt Federal Inquiry,” Oct. 22, 2003.)

“Those were vicious attacks,” Ms. Greene said. “But we’re like any other agency. There are always a few people not doing their jobs the way they should.”

John Bancroft, the executive director of Head Start at the Puget Sound Educational Service District in Washington state, which serves suburban Seattle and suburban Tacoma, said President Bush’s then-new administration was trying to “put its stamp on the program,” maybe without realizing how negatively those proposals would be received by the Head Start community.

Head Start at a Glance

Launched in 1965, the Head Start program focuses mainly on children of families with incomes at or below the poverty line. It provides educational, health, nutrition, and social services.

Enrollment in 1965 summer program: 561,000
Enrollment in 2005: 906,993
Children served since 1965: 23 million



Number of grantee agencies: 1,604
Number of paid staff members: 213,000
Number of volunteers: 1,360,000

SOURCE: Office of Head Start, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

As the reauthorization process moves forward, Mr. Bancroft said he sees bipartisan cooperation on the Senate and House versions of the bills—both of which include a provision that would drop the National Reporting System, a controversial package of tests administered to 4- and 5-year-olds twice a year.

“It has been quite a distraction,” Mr. Bancroft said about the testing system, adding that on top of pre-existing assessments his program has used, the “NRS has been no use to us.”

But Mr. Wilkins said the test has been useful in determining how to design technical assistance. For example, past NRS results showed that children in the program needed stronger early-math skills, and so more attention has been focused on that area, he said. Last fall, the test also was expanded to include measures of social and emotional growth, long recommended by critics of the test, as well as by the Head Start administration’s own evaluation of the testing program.

“There have been tremendous gains when we were intentional,” Mr. Wilkins said, adding that if the test is eliminated, “our ability to be informed will clearly be hampered.”

Danielle Ewen, the director of child-care and early-education policy at the Washington-based Center on Law and Social Policy (CLASP), said Head Start staff members have felt pressure over such issues as how their NRS results will be used or if they are spending their funds appropriately.

“There is an environment of fear that has been created in many programs,” she said. “They’re worrying about those layers of accountability.”

Funding Squeeze

Head Start also has been buffeted by a leveling- off of funding that the NHSA says has left some programs in dire circumstances.

A loss of transportation services, a cutback on meal portions, and the dropping of some comprehensive services are among the sacrifices administrators report having made over the past six years of flat funding at about $6.8 billion annually.

Mr. Bancroft said that at the centers in his area, which serve 1,700 3- and 4-year-olds, the family-support workers have had to increase their caseloads, and programs to train and employ parents have been reduced. Teacher salaries, typically below those of kindergarten teachers or of teachers in many school-based prekindergarten programs, have also been frozen.

At the Child Start site in Covina, the budget restrictions were felt when staff members working for the state received cost-of-living pay increases, but the Head Start employees did not.

“We’re feeling it here on the front line,” said Sandra Maldonado, an education coordinator for Options.

Brushing their teeth after breakfast are, from left, Mario Arias, Zianya Angeles, Valentine Rawlings, and Devin Harp, all students at the Tillicum Head Start program, in Tillicum, Wash.

Mr. Wilkins doesn’t disagree that Head Start agencies have had to tighten spending, and also said that some years saw large increases in funding for program improvements.

“This has been an opportunity for them to look at their decisions. Maybe they weren’t as prudent as they should have been,” he said.

Mr. Barnett, from NIEER, said that “the decline in real purchasing power” because of inflation in the past five years or so is probably even larger for Head Start programs than people think. He even speculates that the Bush administration is trying to “offload” the program in more subtle ways after the failure of its plan to convert the program to one funded by block grants. “Holding the Head Start budget down is certainly one way to give states more responsibility,” he said.

An example from Alabama may back up his theory. State Rep. Laura Hall, a Democrat, said recently that she is preparing a bill that would shift $1 million from state education funds to Head Start programs. She said she hopes her legislation will be approved “especially in light of the fact that we do not have a statewide pre-K program.” She added that “Head Start’s 40 years of service” is one good reason for the state’s support.

Working With the Community

Head Start programs also are grappling with how agencies now fit into a broader mix of publicly funded school-readiness programs.

“There are Head Starts that have been successful at integrating” children served by state preschool programs, Mr. Barnett said. “But there are others that have been very resistant and trying to do business as usual.”

Head Start was a pioneer in reaching out to existing programs though state collaboration offices, which led to partnerships such as joint teacher-training workshops and cross-agency committees.

“That’s the idea of Head Start—to be able to work with the community,” said Cherry Chua, the program manager at Options.

When programs work together, they are often able to serve more children. Even before the large growth in state preschool programs, Head Start centers in the 1990s teamed up with federally subsidized child-care centers to provide longer hours to children whose mothers were working to meet the requirements of new welfare laws.

But working with public prekindergarten programs—which, in many states, allow Head Start providers to receive pre-K funding—raises different issues. Because state preschool programs tend to focus primarily on school-readiness skills, Head Start providers have expressed concern that other services such as health, nutrition, and family support, which are as much a part of the program as the educational component, will get pushed aside.

“They feel that they are the keepers of comprehensive care, and the kids who need it the most are going to get lost,” said Helene Stebbins, an analyst of early-childhood-education policy who recently co-authored a paper with CLASP on Head Start and pre-K collaboration.

If a state’s pre-K program serves children at the same family-income level as Head Start—which is 100 percent of the federal poverty level—a turf war over children can develop.

A smiling Yuriana Martinez, 5, left, and Carlos Siete, 6, second from right, watch as librarian Jane Hampton greets children with a hand puppet during a Head Start trip to the Tillicum, Wash., library.

Tonya Russell, the director of the division of child care and early-childhood education in the Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services, said a combination of events in her state led many Head Start providers to blame pre-K for a decline in Head Start enrollment.

First, the state in 2005 increased funding for the Arkansas Better Chance pre-K program, which serves low-income families. Around the same time, the federal government began requiring monthly enrollment counts from Head Start agencies, which don’t get paid for children who aren’t attending.

Demographic shifts in areas long served by Head Start also have affected the program, which had its birth in the African-American community. The gentrification of some urban neighborhoods means that families eligible for the program have moved elsewhere, and some Head Start classrooms are left underenrolled, and perhaps unprepared to reach out to new immigrant groups.

“There are clearly enough eligible children across the country,” Mr. Wilkins said, arguing that some grantees may need to “expand their ways” of attracting new families.

Preliminary results from a yet-to-be-released study by CLASP shows, for example, that even though Head Start programs might be adequately serving Spanish-speaking families, “they are not always providing meaningful access to non-English-speaking families” from other immigrant groups, such as Cambodians or Vietnamese.

The Right Mix

Some observers, who argue that children benefit from being in classrooms with peers from different socioeconomic levels, say they don’t want to see Head Start continue to serve the poorest children while state preschool programs increasingly serve middle-class children.

“Segregating poor kids is not a good idea,” Mr. Barnett said, adding that mixing Head Start programs with pre-K programs can benefit Head Start, “because people are willing to pay even more for poor kids in a program that is more universal.”

But a combination of Head Start, pre-K, and child-care children in the same classroom or center can also mean a collision between different sets of standards over features such as class size, square-footage, nutrition, and other services.

“It took us two years to get pre-K teachers to brush [children’s] teeth,” Gina Ruther, the Head Start collaboration director in Illinois, said about a long-standing practice in Head Start. “They’re still not doing home visits.”

In that state, which has had prekindergarten for 20 years, a variety of arrangements exist. Some agencies serve Head Start and pre-K children in separate classrooms. Some children are counted in both programs, which might mean they receive more hours of class time. And in other local programs, classes are even team-taught by Head Start and pre-K teachers in order to meet the staff-credentialing requirements of both programs.

Mr. Bancroft said that partnerships between programs can be an “auditor’s nightmare.”

And Ms. Russell, in Arkansas, said some directors may worry about making mistakes that could show up on a monitoring report.

“There is a deep fear that [federal officials] will take our funding,” she said, adding that staff members “just don’t want a checkmark by their name.”

Mr. Wilkins, however, said he has been “very clear that we’re interested in collaboration” as long as it can be done without jeopardizing Head Start standards. He said he hopes Head Start providers feel supported by his office.

In Illinois, where Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, has pledged to provide universal pre-K to both 3- and 4-year-olds, Ms. Ruther said she frequently tells grantees that they are in a “competitive arena” and that they need to promote what Head Start can offer that is different from what child-care and preschool programs provide.

“I try to remind people that, ‘Unless the feds do something to destroy you, Head Start provides families with some opportunities that the other two programs do not,’ ” she said. “As long as Head Start is still in the picture, things will be OK. These are just struggles to go through as we get there.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as For Head Start, A MarathonRun


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