The Advisory Committee on Head Start Research Evaluation recently reviewed the Head Start Programs across the United States, and reported that the program was "at a very critical juncture today." Since its inception during 1965, in which it started out as an eight week summer program, eventually resulting in what we recognize today as a part time program of nine months, very little has changed in regards to the effectiveness of the program. One of the major changes occurred in 1994, with the inclusion of pregnant women, whose newborns could be serviced through the program from birth until 3 years of age. Exceptional Student Education was also added to the program.
The main objective of the program was to prepare school readiness skills in students so that the quality of their lives would be better than their parents' lives. Research had shown that children from low socioeconomic backgrounds were less likely to complete school, less likely to find stable employment, more likely to develop mental challenges, and were more likely to continue the cycle of poverty.
The program addressed the social, cognitive, emotional, physical, and health developments as well as literacy and in some instances language acquisition and mathematical abilities of the individuals enrolled. The program today is billed as "comprehensive," but there are still many vital gaps and issues that must addressed in order for the Head Start program to operate more effectively.
Some major recommendations by the Committee were to develop (a):
1. Better effectiveness in the overall Head Start organization.
2. Incorporate selective infusions of funding into certain aspects of the program.
3. The inclusion of more rigorous research and data in order to drive policies.
4. Better accommodation of changing demographics.
5. Reduction in the gap on achievement and underlying disparities.
6. Better legislation of birth to 8 year-old programs.
7. A stronger adherence to knowledge base curriculum, expansion of services, and policy decision making.
8. Review relevant assessment tools to monitor school readiness in all five of the domains, quality-curriculum assurance, and family health and well being concerns.
9. The implementation of "model-systems" or pilots utilizing data and evident-based practices or best teaching strategies.
10. Maximize student gains by allowing for continuity through elementary school attendance.
These were just a few of the more easily incorporated recommendations from the committee, and while this list is not all inclusive, there are certainly enough suggestions for a closer look at revamping or perhaps including a few pilot programs into the Head Start Program, so that it empowers the most vulnerable in our society, and enables them to break the cycle of poverty by acquiring an opportunity to utilize education as an exit ramp out of what is usually considered to be a downward spiral.
While the Head Start program has made a difference in the lives of many families, there is still a growing number of children and families that will never have the opportunity to become a participant in the program. Perhaps, one way to impact the Pre-K student model rate in a positive way, is to increase the sizes of the student count in each class, but allow for specialization of curriculum. Similar to that of team teaching through block planning. This is a highly effective way of utilizing the expertise of one's staff, or newly hired staff to accommodate the change. The Head Start Program could utilize a "Comprehensive Wheel" Approach, where it now seriously begins to look at the data that is driving student achievement, best teaching literacy practices, mathematical, and dual language practices, and begin incorporating that data into a partially holistic approach allowing the Reading and Language Arts and Emergent Writing "Specialists" to focus only on those areas as it would apply to teaching, assessment, and expansion in relationship to the policy making legislation that sets the mandates for the program. Mathematics Specialists could also focus on the appropriate benchmarks even through the inclusion of manipulatives and reading books that lend themselves strictly to mathematical themes. Finally, the addition of "Special Area Specialists" could teach the other areas such as (Art, Music, and Physical Education etc.)
The Director's job would be to ensure that staff are properly matched with their areas of strengths, while continuing to provide training and support for the staff either through in-house training, or through the Department of Children and Families Services. One of the benefits of this pilot is that it would allow for a greater number of students to be serviced while still maintaining a manageable teaching group size for the educator. Students are also becoming acclimatized to the idea of "rotation" which has its own merits even at so early an age. Most of the students would view this as a positive way to adjust as sometimes, many of these same students come from homes that lack the positive consistency of what I would like to call "life-change-building."
This is only one of many pilots that could be incorporated into the Program and would begin to produce the kind of adequate yearly gains that we would like to see in our students, but is realistic enough that it can be continued throughout the student's elementary school experience, and certainly into middle and senior high school, and even higher education.
After reviewing the entire Committee's report, I understand the poignancy behind the statement that the Head Start Program “is at a critical juncture.” However important of a role that the program plays in the lives of countless families with children, all across the United States, we do know that this is a “fixable problem.” Policy makers no longer have to “throw money” blindly at times, at the challenges that are presented in strengthening our Early Child Care education system, but we can impact the lives of our children, one state at a time, one child at a time.