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The Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start

September 18, 2009 - 7:52am


Sept. 8: Competing, Collaborating and Evolving
Sept. 9: Seeking Signs of Change Since 2007
Sept. 11: Checking Assumptions on School Readiness
Sept. 15: A Tilt Toward Literacy
Sept 17: The Case for 'Comprehensive Services'
Today: The Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start
Sept. 21: Future Tracks
Sept. 22: Web chat (email us your questions)

This is the sixth post in a seven-part series on the future of Head Start. Please join us for a web chat on this topic on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 12:30 p.m. EDT here at EarlyEdWatch.org. We invite you to email us questions to get the chat rolling. 

Head Start may be about to turn 45. But you could argue that it's younger than ever.

Though many people think of Head Start as a program aimed at 4-year-olds, it actually enrolls children at 3 and 4 in the hopes of immersing them in two full years of early childhood services before their arrival in kindergarten. Lately, Head Start's enrollment has started to shift, serving an increasing proportion of 3-year-olds and a decreasing proportion of 4-year-olds. In 2008, 3-year-olds comprised 36 percent of Head Start's enrollment, up from 28 percent in 2006. At the same time, enrollment of 4-year-olds dropped to 50 percent from 56 percent over those two years.

In 1995, when Early Head Start was introduced, the program started to reach for even younger children -- targeting infants, toddlers and pregnant mothers. With the influx of stimulus money, the number of children and pregnant mothers served by Early Head Start programs is set to nearly double in size -- with money available to serve 117,000 babies and pregnant mothers instead of the 62,000 participating last year.

Could these new growth areas lead Head Start to become known as the program for pre-preschoolers? Are we witnessing the Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start, a program getting younger with each passing year?

It seems likely, especially in places where state-funded pre-K programs are serving children at age 4 but not age 3.

The shift in age demographics shouldn't be taken to mean, however, that Head Start agencies across the country are having a hard time finding 4-year-olds. In places of high poverty or without many other options for affordable or free pre-K, demand for Head Start at age 4 continues to be very high. "We haven't had any problem filling our 4-year-old slots," says YaTonya Abdullah, disability coordinator and head teacher for the Head Start program in Morris County, N.J.  "We always have a waiting list."

Neither is there a stampede of Head Start programs rushing to convert themselves into Early Head Start programs, even though the law was amended in 2007 to allow them to do so. The Department of Health and Human Services will not disclose how many applications it has received from Head Start agencies wanting to make this transformation, but given that conversions require agencies to stop serving 3- and 4-year-olds, most agencies do not consider it an appealing option. They are loathe to eliminate services for older children just to be able to serve infants and toddlers.

It is the case, however, that with so much money suddenly available to expand Early Head Start slots -- $1.1 billion in stimulus funds -- Head Start administrators are now chomping at the bit to supplement their preschool offerings with birth-to-three programs.  At the annual Birth to Three Institute in Washington, D.C., a June gathering that typically draws people who work with infants and toddlers, sessions were packed to standing-room-only. And unlike past years, representatives from Head Start were everywhere. Many of them said they had come to find out exactly what Early Head Start looks like and how their programs might be able to get a little younger themselves. (They learned, for example, that caring for children this young is not cheap. Providing care for infants and toddlers typically costs 15 percent more than regular Head Start, primarily because more staff members are required to keep adult-to-child ratios low.)

Federal officials are now processing the abundance of applications that arrived by the July 9th deadline for agencies to apply for the expansion money. An HHS spokesman said that an announcement will be coming this month or next on how many Head Start agencies will be given money to expand. 

Early Head Start has received good press for its effectiveness. Since its genesis, a national study has tracked the progress of its participants and compared them to a group of similar children who were not assigned to be part of it. Results published in 2002 showed that Early Head Start had significantly increased children's scores on measures of cognitive and social-emotional development by the time they were 3.

Of course, Early Head Start should not be considered a magic pill. "You cannot expect one program to bear the responsibility" for pulling children out of entrenched poverty, said Tammy Mann, deputy executive director of Zero to Three, in a talk at the Birth to Three Institute. But one aspect of recent research on Early Head Start's impact has been particularly heartening: It showed that children with the most risk factors - those born to poor mothers without much education and high levels of depression, for example - are most helped by Early Head Start when it is connected to Head Start. "When you look across the age spectrum, children did better when they had the opportunity to experience the continuity," Mann said. "If they had Early Head Start to Head Start, we began to see positive outcomes."

And what about continuity in a shorter time span, as children grow from 3 to 4 years old?

Here is where the shift among regular Head Start programs toward serving a greater proportion of 3-year-olds could be good or bad. The positive side is that if more Head Start children are reached at younger ages, they will presumably be in preschool for two full years before entering kindergarten. That's a plus, given that studies have shown two years of preschool to be better than one.

But if the shift to 3-year-old services is occurring because Head Start centers are losing 4-year-olds to other pre-K providers, children may be bopping from one program to another each year, and then to yet another setting when they enter kindergarten. Research shows that with each such transition, something may be lost.

For a peek into the future, it's helpful to look at states where Head Start operates alongside state-run pre-K programs with large enrollments. In Georgia, the first state in the country to offer universal pre-K, the state pays for 6.5 hours of pre-K instruction for any 4-year-old whose family wants it. Over 50 percent of all 4-year-olds are enrolled. It does not provide services for 3s.

When the program started, some people worried that this would siphon children away from Head Start. But enrollment has remained steady in both programs over the past few years, with about 76,000 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K and 22,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Head Start in 07-08, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.  And lately, the two programs have started to work together more closely. In a sign of their collaboration, both Janice Haker, Georgia's Head Start Collaboration Director and Susan Adams, program manager for Georgia Pre-K, spoke with Early Ed Watch together on a conference call to explain how they work.

One strategy on the table, they said, is for Head Start to focus on 3-year-olds in poverty, while the state's Pre-K program covers the 4s, no matter what their income. Already, Georgia's Head Start programs serve more 3-year-olds than 4-year olds; most recent data show that approximately 12,000 3-year-olds are in the state's Head Start programs versus just 9,000 4-year-olds. That enrollment inbalance could increase if Head Start focused even more of its energies on enrolling 3-year-olds. (And as the Pre-K program stands now, 4-year-olds who qualify for Head Start typically get state-funded pre-K for 6.5 hours with Head Start funding paying for their "wrap-around services" including after-hours care and health and parental involvement programs that the state program doesn't cover.)

The Head Start program in Tulsa, Oklahoma has a similar vision. In Oklahoma, every 4-year-old in the state has the option of attending the state's free pre-K program, which is administered by the public schools. One might think that this would pull so many children away from Head Start that it wouldn't survive, but that isn't what happened. Because the law was written to ensure that public schools could contract out for preschool services, Head Start has had a place at the table. In Tulsa, where the Community Action Project (CAP) runs Head Start, this opened up an opportunity for the Head Start agency to make stronger connections with the schools and build new Head Start facilities on school grounds.  Tulsa's Head Start also decided to make sure its standards lined up with those of the pre-K program, requiring every teacher to have a bachelor's degree and paying them the same as a public school teacher. New research out of Georgetown University (described in an earlier post in this series) shows that classroom quality is high and nearly identical to the preschool classrooms in the public schools.

It used to be that Tulsa's Head Start program had more 4-year-olds than 3-year-olds, but lately the proportion has dropped to about 50-50. Steven Dow, executive director for CAP, envisions a day when the public schools get all the 4-year-olds and Head Start retains the 3-year-olds.

"Head Start ideally shouldn't have 4-year-olds at all," Dow said. "If the school district could get more money from the state, that would let them do more 4-year-olds and let us do the 3s." But he added that this would only work "as long as schools are committed to reaching the at-risk 4s." His concern is that Head Start's emphasis on serving the neediest families - who often need to be recruited and made aware of the importance of early education - would fall away under the state-funded program, since it takes in all families regardless of income. Another worry is whether Head Start's comprehensive services could be fully replicated by the state program. Oklahoma already provides medical screenings and meals in pre-K - would commensurate health and parental involvement services be offered too?

If Dow's vision does come to pass - and if Early Head Start continues its rise -- the result would be an interesting division in state and federal funding, with the federal government essentially paying for children's education up until age 4 and the state taking over from there.

Whether that is a fruitful dynamic is up in the air. But it shows how important it will be to think through exactly how early education should be funded, especially as we see it extending to younger and younger ages.   And it will be crucial to make transitions as seamless as possible as children move through infancy to preschool and on through elementary school. As Early Ed Watch has stressed before, these PreK-3rd transitions are a key element in making sure that children have the best opportunities for educational success.

Before we brainstorm what future tracks that Head Start might pursue (the topic of the final post in this series), we will leave you with this statistic from the executive summary of NIEER's 2008 yearbook: "At current growth rates, it will take 150 years for the United States to achieve universal access for 3-year-olds." That's right, 150 years. With Head Start expansion, maybe there is at least a chance for more of the poorest 3 year olds to gain access before then.