Printer Friendly

The success of the war on poverty; if it's really a Head Start, why are we still dragging our feet?

If it's really a Head Start,, why are we still dragging our feet?

They never would have filmed "Leave It to Beaver"-or even "Sesame Street"-near the intersection of Florida Avenue and Benning Road, in southeast Washington. Once-elegant townhouses are battered and boarded up. Groups of men hang out at a bus shelter waiting for something to come along. On the sidewalk nearby, a small girl, maybe four years old, stands by herself in a bright pink jacket, watching the traffic. Some tenants of a large housing project have hung plants in their windows and put patio furniture on their porches, but it's hard to imagine a barbecue in this neighborhood, where drug dealers are battling for turf vacated by the arrest of Rayful Edmond III, allegedly Washington's foremost drug entrepreneur. To an adult, the scene is hostile enough; to a child, it testifies grimly to what life holds in store. On a cold September morning in this neighborhood, 13 kids gather in a warm, spacious basement room-all of them from poor families, all of them about four years old, all of them here for a Head Start preschool program that offers a half-day of sanctuary from the life outside.

It's the beginning of the school year, so most of the children are just getting the hang of things. Their teacher, a young black woman named Joann Ramsuer, sits cross-legged on the carpet handing each child a "personal symbol," a construction-paper square, triangle, or half-moon that makes the child feel special while he learns about colors and shapes. On receiving his symbol, each child names the area he's chosen to play in for the next half-hour (one rule of Head Start is that children make their own decisions, however small). After some bewildered standing around, most of the kids head for waterplay," a large sink filled with green water and different sized household containers which, as the children pour water back and forth, help them grasp the notion of quantity. At Head Start, no activity is without a purpose.

As the morning passes, the kids warm to their environment-so much so that some begin to bicker and cry. Whenever things heat up Ramseur or the program director, Mattie Jackson, tells them to "use your words" instead. Head Start kids are not as used to articulating their feelings as other children, so teachers try to coax these skills along. The same goes for self-esteem. As she circulates around the room, Jackson makes a point of telling children, "I like the way you're waiting for your food," or "I like the way you stand in line."

Inside, the kids hone their fine motor skills"; outside, during a play period, they exercise their "gross motor skills" on a jungle gym. At lunchtime they work again at self-reliance, setting their own places, struggling to slice and butter a corn muffin, lining up afterward to scrape their plates. While the kids brush their teeth, a social worker comes in with a mother and child she has pulled off the street, to show them the center and put the child on a waiting list. The kids fetch blankets and bed down for a nap.

This is pretty much how Head Start works in all 1,287 centers, in churches and cast-off elementary schools, cities and rural communities. Its aim is to prepare disadvantaged children for school by teaching them basic concepts that most kids have absorbed by first grade. It gets them accustomed to a social environment and persuades them to look at learning as something fun-and in the process checks their teeth and eyes, inoculates and feeds them. Teachers come from the childrens' world, often from their own neighborhood, and understand

their needs in a way middle-class social workers can't.

While some parents undoubtedly use Head Start as an opportunity to watch more television, few get off scot-free. Head Start staff visit the children's homes several times a year to discuss each child's progress. They ask parents to work as aides in the classroom, serve on center planning boards, and assist with field trips and their children's "home- work"-making colored slips, say, to help them practice distinguishing red from orange. Some centers offer parents classes in child care, English, health, and nutrition.

No preschool can single-handedly turn a crack baby into a college graduate, but there are plenty of things it -an do. A recent study has offered some evidence that in the long run, preschool training can reduce welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, and delinquency, while boosting a child's chances of graduating from high school and going on to college or vocational school. In the short run-charts and statistics aside-it teaches kids to tie their shoes and gives them some room to play and a little extra affection. Today, Head Start has become a fixture in low-income neighborhoods-so much so that many people take it for granted. Many have also forgotten how the program began, calling Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty a complete failure and Head Start a success in the same breath. In its modest way, Head Start proves that programs designed to fight poverty can not only succeed but thrive-that the War on Poverty "failed" because individual programs were bad or inadequate, not because government can't assist the poor. Tips for tots

Head Start never really developed. Instead, it sprang, fully grown, from the brows of its creators. At its founding in 1965, the program had two key advantages: a design that was widely applicable and a federal administration that was willing to apply it widely. It was the brainchild not of educators," but of diverse child psychologists, social workers, doctors, and nurses called over to the Office of Economic Opportunity in January 1965 by Sargent Shriver. At a time when public kindergarten was virtually nonexistent and preschool unheard-of outside of a few experimental programs, Shriver's board came up with a plan that combined creative teaching methods with providing meals and medical attention; it mandated small classrooms and demanded that parents be involved in running the program (something that public schools usually resisted). Another aim of the program was acculturation"-bringing kids into the mainstream-but the more widely publicized goal was to raise IQs, satisfying those among the Johnson administration (including Shriver) who looked to numbers for proof of success. The creators' imaginations didn't extend to nomenclature; originally, their program was to be called "The Program to Enhance the Opportunities of Disadvantaged Children." Shriver, ever the consummate salesman, was horrified. At two o'clock the following morning, his brainstorming staff came up with an alternative: "Head Start."

While some of the planners wanted to start small, Johnson was anxious to prove to the nation that the poverty war had begun. In early 1965 he and Shriver decided that Head Start would start soon and start big- serving 100,000 children in 300 counties the first summer. In May, the president announced the new program at a Rose Garden tea, telling his audience that thanks to eight weeks of preschool, "Thirty million man-years-the combined life-span of these youngsters-will be spent productively, rather than wasted in tax-supported lethargy."

Not even Johnson anticipated the surge of public interest. The common sense of the idea came across immediately, both to poor parents and to more affluent ones who would eventually copy the notion for their own offspring. Faced with thousands more entries than he had anticipated, Jule Sugarman, Head Start's first director, beefed up his staff and processed them all. Johnson told Sugarman to "go spend," and he did. That first summer, Head Start wound up serving over half a million kids in church basements, community centers, and disused schoolhouses in 3,600 counties. Plans were immediately laid for a more ambitious eight-month program, and by its second year Head Start was serving an all-time high of 733,000 kids-establishing the program so firmly nationwide that it became impossible to destroy. For the next few years it enjoyed a honeymoon period rare among poverty programs, and at the same time assisted the civil rights movement by reinforcing the idea that every child, black or white, is entitled to a decent education.

One of the main strengths of the early Head Start was that while its centers were administered by community sponsors (generally community action agencies), they drew funding directly from CEO. Thus they bypassed (at least in theory) control by recalcitrant governors, state legislators, and school bureaucrats. By hiring a combination of parents, trained teachers, and members of the community who were on their way out of poverty, Head Start intended to provide kids with real-life role models. In 1965, the concept was either earthshaking or horrifying, depending on who you were. In the South, many white school administrators refused to open their facilities to Head Start for the summer, and organizers ended up running most programs out of black churches.

Soon, congressmen began hearing complaints about Head Start from local politicians who had originally thought it would be okay to offer poor kids hot meals and cast-off books, only to discover that Head Start was creating a power base independent of their patronage. In Chicago, Mayor Daley won control of hiring for Head Start and the local community action agencies. But the most notorious fight came in Mississippi, where Senators James Eastland and John Stennis set out to destroy the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), a Head Start group made up of civil rights activists who had worked on voter registration during "freedom summer" the year before.

Lavishly funded by OEO (to the tune of $1.5 mil- lion), CDGM members encountered great hostility from white Mississippians, who bombed their buses and houses and threatened their teachers. Stennis began to exercise his authority as a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, putting through an amendment declaring that federal administrators would be held responsible for any irregularities in local Head Start programs. Johnson and Shriver were unnerved. Rather than assist the group with its muddled records, OEO used CDGM's haphazard bookkeeping as an excuse to kill its funding and create another Head Start sponsor, Mississippi Action for Progress, which was tied in with more moderate segments of the black community including the NAACP. The immediate upshot was that the program became the bailiwick of middle-class blacks rather than poor ones, and more palatable to Mississippi's old white guard.

Ultimately, that old guard's worst fears were realized. CDGM won new funding from Congress, and the two groups competed for Head Start, each controlling a number of centers around the state. Many of the black leaders who cut their eyeteeth on that struggle went on to national careers. Among them was Marian Wright Edelman, a young lawyer whose early battles with Washington on behalf of CDGM led her to create the Children's Defense Fund, now the strongest lobbying group for children. But even for those who did not become national figures, Stennis was right in fearing that Head Start would become what it has remained: an alternative source of jobs and a powerful community rallying point.

Et tu, IQ?

As in Mississippi, Head Start has been dogged throughout its history not just by external resistance but by disputes among its backers. Some poverty warriors felt a little, well, embarrassed by Head Start. Primed for revolution, the more radical community action leaders weren't overjoyed to learn they'd be fighting a war with crayons and colored paper. They saw the aim of providing "services" to poor children as too moderate, too middle-class, too square. Other divisions began to appear in the poverty camp. Community action staff members viewed Head Start as a competitor for OEO funds. And Head Start generally enjoyed greater public support than other community action programs, which targeted older (and therefore less clearly benign) groups.

But probably most divisive was the question of whether Head Start was an education program or a vehicle for "empowerment." Jargon aside, it's always been both. From the beginning a central tenet of Head Start has been "up and out"-meaning that a parent might start as a volunteer, then become a paid teacher's aide, a teacher, or even return to college, and ultimately enter the middle class. While up and out didn't work for everybody, Head Start's archives are full of success stories like Maxine Waters, a former welfare mother who is now a California assemblywoman and activist for the poor. This goal of empowerment was noble, but it introduced the constant (and still present) danger that Head Start could devolve into a jobs program. And in fact, that has often happened when CAP administrators failed to make teaching a priority in assigning Head Start jobs.

None of these internecine quarrels helped much when the first blow fell in 1969, in the form of a study conducted by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation. All along, Shriver had been adamant about tracking the program with studies, and at one point asked Sugarman to design a test that could show him the IQ gains he was getting per dollar. But Westinghouse didn't produce what Shriver wanted; it concluded that any IQ gains among Head Start children dissipated by third grade. The press scooped up these findings, and suddenly the word was out that Head Start was a failure." On top of this, Head Start suffered from Johnson's absorption in Vietnam. Funding dropped from $350 million in 1967 to $316 million in 1968. When Nixon took office in 1969 and Head Start moved to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, things looked even worse. On being brought down from Yale to replace Sugarman, Dr. Edward Zigler says he discovered a three-year Head Start phaseout plan prepared by the Office of Management and Budget. But Zigler found an ally in HEW Secretary Elliott Richardson. Moreover, Head Start by then had a strong grass-roots constituency that guaranteed at least some congressional support. Through intensive lobbying, Zigler managed to keep the program alive.

Funding rose only incrementally between 1971 and 1972, and in 1973 not at all. The number of children served dropped steadily, reaching 333,000 in 1977. Despite Jimmy Carter's sympathy for the program, the severe recession meant Head Start was still limping as it entered the Reagan era-just as studies were showing better results, and, more important, as Head Start's implementors were discovering that the program's real contribution lay in enhancing children's health, motivation, self-esteem, and social skills: what Zigler dubbed "everyday social competence." As for the drop in IQ scores, too few people noticed one obvious reason behind them-the public schools.

You'd think it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if kids leave Head Start doing well and then begin doing poorly in elementary school, the schools probably aren't pulling their weight. Unfailingly, though, Head Start has taken the rap from policymakers for a public school system that's indifferent to the children of the underclass.

Not that this obstacle wasn't anticipated. In 1967-before Westinghouse-Sugarman and his codirector, Dr. Julius Richmond, created a program called Follow Through to make sure that public schools continued applying Head Start methods in the higher grades. Follow Through was doomed from the start, mostly because it came into being when much of the momentum and the money for the poverty war was exhausted. And while Sugarman kept Head Start away from the Office of Education during the move to HEW (merging it instead with the Children's Bureau) he lost Follow Through to the public school bureaucrats. The same schools that were already doing a sorry job with lower-class kids were expected to apply for a Follow Through program. Consequently, in the 20 years of its shadowy existence, Follow Through has never been more than a weak pilot program. It now serves only 20,000 children-with no guarantee that any of them were enrolled in Head Start to begin with.

School of hard knocks

This lack of follow-up attention meant that Head Start kids usually had only one or two years of learning through play-oriented activities under the care of sympathetic teachers. After that, they entered a public school system that catered to neat, well-behaved, highly motivated kids. The preschoolers had gotten a head start, but that didn't mean they'd caught up. Moreover, Head Start training didn't always go down well with public school teachers, who were used to docility and subservience in class.

Dr. Martin Deutsch, who pioneered a program similar to Head Start in the 1950s, found in his follow-up studies that teachers were often annoyed by the curiosity his program fostered, responding to the children's questions with hostility. Deutsch found this attitude had a "depressing impact" on the kids and their test scores. Dr. Irving Lazar, who directed a series of long-term studies of Head Start published in the 1970s, came to the same conclusion. "Many teachers really didn't like those Head Start kids. They were noisy and demanding and asked questions they didn't come in terrified and sit down quietly. Head Start programs are relatively free places where kids have a lot of choice. A lot of public school teachers really felt those kids were awful, and complained about them."

Besides uppity kids, schools were faced with the new and unsettling phenomenon of uppity parents. with other studies that found Head Start kids less likely to flunk or to wind up in special education classes-that persuaded the Reagan and Bush administrations to get behind the program. Head Start appeals to conservatives because of its emphasis on self-help and family values (and because it's a fairly inexpensive way to look kind and gentle). Bush began his presidency with a plan to add $250 million to Head Start's budget in 1990 in order to serve 95,000 more kids, arguing that "full funding" could be achieved by tacking on more slots and limiting the program to four-year-olds (the Children's Defense Fund wants Head Start to serve three- to five-year- olds). Recently Bush has backed away from his already narrow definition of "full funding" and from discussing future increases. Congress has voted to add just $170 million to Head Start next year, with some of the money going to expand the program and some for higher teacher salaries. Should Gramm Rudman stay in effect, it will knock that number down to an estimated $102 million, which will allow Head Start to serve only 20,000 more kids in 1990. The good news is that Head Start will get some more money (it got an increase of just $28 million in 1989) and seems to enjoy both conservative and liberal support as it heads toward reauthorization in 1990.

Head Start needs this boost and more: more slots, higher salaries, and an expansion of its mission to serve not just the poor but also the working poor. In addition to coming up with more money, Congress should create a national volunteer corps of young people committed to working for two or three years in programs like this. Most important, Head Start kids need follow through, something that seems to have gotten lost in the debate. You can do all you want to improve the quality and quantity of Head Start, but without competent and sympathetic teachers in the public schools, the early benefits will quickly fade-which may be why a third of the Perry Preschoolers still wound up as dropouts. We've always known that a stitch in time saves nine. What we're seeing in the battle between Head Start and the school system is that a stitch in time can also unravel.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Mundy, Liza
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1989
Previous Article:Notes from underground; some surprising lessons about productivity and job satisfaction from the coal mines.
Next Article:Lessons from the poverty front; OEO didn't solve our urban problems, but it did some things right. Things we should be doing now.

Related Articles
Lessons from the poverty front; OEO didn't solve our urban problems, but it did some things right. Things we should be doing now.
Growing up poor; poverty packs several punches for child development.
How to wage war.
The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Dark days for Democrats. (The Word from Washington).
Being poor in the land of plenty: almost 33 million Americans are poor--a third of them children under 18. In a world dominated by mall culture,...
The Birth of Head Start: Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.
The poor are still with us.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters