Getting a jump on preschool

Head Start im­proves un­der new lead­er­ship de­spite chaos in Washington

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LEARNING - By Ja­son DeParle New York Times

When fed­eral of­fi­cials in­spected this city’s Head Start pro­gram five years ago, they found moldy class­rooms, ex­posed wires, leak­ing sewage, a sag­ging roof and trash-strewn play­grounds lit­tered with safety haz­ards. A teacher had jerked a stu­dent so hard she dis­lo­cated the girl’s shoul­der.

The vis­i­tors were so alarmed at the ne­glect that they be­gan chang­ing di­a­pers them­selves. What they did next was more un­usual: They fired the non­profit run­ning the pro­gram, the Ur­ban League, and chose a new one.

Now run by Lutheran Ser­vices Florida, Jack­sonville’s Head Start pro­gram has cleaner class­rooms, more teach­ers with col­lege de­grees, a full­time teach­ing coach and ris­ing scores on the fed­eral govern­ment’s main yard­stick of class­room qual­ity. Once in the low­est 10 per­cent na­tion­wide, Jack­sonville now has scores that ap­proach the na­tional av­er­age.

The change re­flects an un­her­alded trend: Head Start, the coun­try’s big­gest preschool pro­gram, is getting bet­ter. More than a decade af­ter Congress im­posed new stan­dards on Head Start, a third of its part­ners have been forced to com­pete for fund­ing that was once vir­tu­ally au­to­matic, and the share of class­rooms ranked good or ex­cel­lent has risen more than fourfold. With a $10 bil­lion bud­get and nearly 900,000 low-in­come stu­dents, Head Start is a be­he­moth force in early ed­u­ca­tion, in an age when brain sci­ence puts ever more em­pha­sis on early learn­ing.

“The qual­ity of Head Start has def­i­nitely im­proved,” said Mar­garet Burchi­nal, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Head Start author­ity. “That’s a big jump be­cause there are so many class­rooms in­volved. To make that much im­prove­ment across the whole coun­try is pretty amaz­ing.”

As the govern­ment strug­gles merely to stay open, Head Start’s hard-fought gains of­fer a story of bi­par­ti­san progress at odds with its po­lar­iz­ing time.

De­spite its roots in Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son’s War on Poverty, Head Start, which was founded in 1965, has long at­tracted sup­port from both Repub­li­cans and Democrats — even un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has tried to cut other safety net pro­grams, its bud­get has in­creased by $900 mil­lion.

That is partly be­cause it is much smaller than other pro­grams with ’60s roots like Med­i­caid ($576 bil­lion) and food stamps ($68 bil­lion). It is aimed at young chil­dren, who can­not be faulted for their poverty. And un­like most fed­eral pro­grams, Head Start by­passes state of­fi­cials and di­rectly fi­nances lo­cal groups, in­clud­ing non­prof­its and school sys­tems. Many have built re­la­tion­ships with mem­bers of Congress, who typ­i­cally view the pro­gram as a source of com­mu­nity ser­vices and jobs.

While Head Start was known for years as a poverty pro­gram that worked, even its friends had come to be­lieve that it did not work as well as it could. A na­tional study, started in the early 2000s, found mod­est cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits that faded out within a year. Crit­ics noted that Head Start’s de­cen­tral­ized struc­ture al­lowed wide vari­a­tion in qual­ity. And in 2003, a Repub­li­can at­tempt to cede con­trol of the pro­gram to some state gov­ern­ments brought bit­ter op­po­si­tion from Democrats, who feared it could lead to Head Start’s demise.

But four years later, Congress passed a bi­par­ti­san law that re­tained fed­eral con­trol while re­quir­ing pe­ri­odic au­dits of class­room qual­ity, with groups in the low­est 10 per­cent forced to com­pete to keep their grants. “The fact that both par­ties were be­hind it meant you couldn’t just end it on a whim,” said for­mer Rep. Ge­orge Miller, D-Calif., who pushed the over­haul. “Pro­grams un­der­stood they had to step up their game.”

The mon­i­tor­ing be­gan in 2012 with an ob­ser­va­tional tool called CLASS, which is de­vised to mea­sure teach­ing qual­ity. De­vel­oped at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, it quan­ti­fies three as­pects of a teacher’s per­for­mance: in­struc­tional sup­port, emo­tional sup­port and class­room or­ga­ni­za­tion. In essence, it gives the govern­ment a re­port card on each of its nearly 1,600 Head Start pro­grams. In the first four years, about 120 of those pro­grams lost all or part of their grant.

In ad­di­tion to the more strin­gent over­sight, other fac­tors that may ex­plain ris­ing scores in­clude an in­crease in fund­ing per child (18 per­cent in the last five years) and bet­ter teacher train­ing. Na­tion­wide, the share of Head Start teach­ers with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree has risen to 73 per­cent, from 47 per­cent a decade ago.

In Jack­sonville, the Ur­ban League had run the pro­gram for 17 years, but low CLASS scores in 2012 opened it to chal­lenge. Be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion oc­curred, in­spec­tors found so many health and safety vi­o­la­tions that they rushed the pro­gram into in­terim man­age­ment. Lutheran Ser­vices was se­lected to take the pro­gram over in 2014 and now serves 1,800 chil­dren.

Mean­while, some crit­ics say in­flex­i­ble rules have un­fairly forced good pro­grams into costly, time-con­sum­ing com­pe­ti­tions. Even pro­grams with high CLASS scores can be forced to rec­om­pete be­cause of a sin­gle vi­o­la­tion of un­re­lated reg­u­la­tions.

“There’s noth­ing wrong with com­pe­ti­tion, but the cri­te­ria need to be im­proved,” said Yas­mina Vinci, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Head Start As­so­ci­a­tion. Com­pil­ing a grant ap­pli­ca­tion is a long, stress­ful process, she said, which “eats up peo­ple’s time and at­ten­tion and dis­tracts the staff from their pri­mary mis­sion” of ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren.

PHO­TOS BY EVE EDELHEIT/NEW YORK TIMES

ABOVE: Tod­dlers take naps with their class at the Don Brewer Head Start cen­ter in Jack­sonville, Fla., on Nov. 19. BE­LOW: Stu­dents lis­ten to an au­dio book while fol­low­ing along in a printed book.

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