Getting a jump on preschool
Head Start improves under new leadership despite chaos in Washington
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.
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.