Looking Back, Around and Forward As Head Start Turns 50

Head Start’s recent 50th anniversary inspired diverse celebrations. Rather wish a post from me had been one of them. But late is better than never. And in this case, late is better than a timelier post would have been because I’ve got the benefits of a thoughtful, thought-provoking post by Olivia Golden, the Executive Director at CLASP.

She singles out some of the lessons Head Start can teach us, including some it wouldn’t have if federal policymakers had pulled the plug on the program, as some earlier research suggested they should — or at least, was used to that end.

Among the lessons is one I’ve been reading about in various contexts — the effectiveness of two-generation strategies, i.e., policies and programs that focus on the needs of both children and their parents. These needs, though seemingly distinct, converge in the goal of enabling parents to raise healthy, well-balanced, successful children.

In the case of Head Start, local programs have included caseworkers to help parents work through issues common to low-income families. Some offer adult education and/or job training and placement services.

At the same time, programs have offered parents opportunities to participate in decision-making — a version of the community-based model found also in other programs launched as the War on Poverty. This is not only empowering, but skill-building, as anyone who’s tried to influence a group (or merely get it to closure) knows.

Parents could also participate in the child education components of their Head Start programs. The results, Golden says, disproved myths about poor parents, e.g., that they don’t care about their children’s education.

Other programs now reflect the two-generation approach. The home visiting programs I’ve occasionally mentioned are a good example. “Preschool in its earliest form,” the Washington Post called them.

But they’re more than that, as the article shows. The visitors help parents — mostly moms — learn how to care for their babies and toddlers. They screen both them and the children for potential health and developmental problems and for abuse in the home. They refer them to healthcare and other services, including education and job training.

So we’ve got multi-faceted, two-generation programs feeding into Head Start, either directly or through the Early Start offshoot for three-year-olds. Overly narrow feeding chain, however. (See below.)

Some programs combine early education for children with basic adult education for their parents. In D.C., for example, The Family Place offers concurrent age-based classes for young children and English as a Second Language for their parents.

We find other family, i.e., two-generation, literacy programs here, including one at Mary’s Center, which offers parents not only ESL and a parenting component, but computer skills training.

In both cases, the organizations also provide other services for both children and their parents. So we again see two sorts of integration and capacities to tailor services to individual needs.

Both organizations serve principally, though not exclusively Hispanic immigrant families. I mention this because Golden flags the link between Head Start and the civil rights movement, which birthed one of our broadest federal civil rights laws only a year before Congress approved the first War on Poverty programs.

“For 50 years,” she says, “Head Start has stood for a vision of the United States that sees promise in all young children, including those in the poorest families, and that reaches out across barriers of race, ethnicity and income to make that promise real.”

That’s the vision, but we’re clearly not living up to it. Nearly 20% of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2013, according to the Census Bureau’s official measure. Bad enough. But the poverty rates for black and Hispanic children were much worse — 38.3% and 30.4%.*

Golden concludes by asking, “What can we do from here?” She refers to “a different future,” based on what we’ve learned over the last 50 years. But she focuses mainly on what we must do now — protect Head Start and other programs that give low-income children a better start in life.

The budget plans the House and Senate have passed set the stage for further cuts in non-defense discretionary programs like Head Start. Total cuts would average about $50 billion a year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. These, recall, would come on top of cuts the 2011 Budget Control Act as already required.

Though Congress ultimately restored what Head Start lost, the current budget plans would translate into an estimated 35,000 fewer children in the program next fiscal year — this as compared to what the President has proposed. An additional 122,000 would lose the opportunity by Fiscal Year 2018.

Only 45% of eligible four-year-olds are in Head Start now, Golden says — and a mere 4% in Early Start. Last year, federally-funded home visiting programs served only 115,545 parents and children.

Yet the recently-renewed Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Visiting program will get, at most, a measly $400 million a year — not a penny more than it’s got now. That, of course, means less in real dollars.

What lessons we should draw from all this I’ll leave to you.

* These are figures CLASP reported. They presumably reflect analyses of data the Census Bureau puts online.

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