Head start, slow finish?

LaDarrica Fuqua counts on an abacus at Handy Head Start in Florence. A study of nearly 5,000 children shows the positive impacts on literacy and language development demonstrated by children who entered Head Start at age 4 had dissipated by the end of third grade.

Don’t tell Florence resident Ruth Anderson that Head Start isn’t a valuable program.

She points to a grown niece and nephew whose successful professional careers, she’s convinced, are attributable to a love of learning that began four decades ago at Handy Head Start.

Fast forward to 2009. Anderson’s twin grandsons, whom she is raising, participated in the class for 4-year-olds at Harlan School.

Now Harlan third-graders, the boys are consistently on the honor roll, making mostly A’s.

“When they left Head Start, they were reading,” she said. “When they got to kindergarten, they were reading on a third-grade level.”

Anderson said the boys are a testament to their educational start. Before joining that class as 4-year-olds, the boys had little structure in their lives. Anderson stepped in, retired from her job and committed to raising the boys. Her first priority: Get them in a structured pre-school program.

“The structure they had in that program was tremendous,” she said. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to them. But I’d seen it before, with my niece and nephew, who are now in their mid-40s.”

Anderson’s experience differs from recent reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start participants across the country were the subject.

Findings from that study of nearly 5,000 children show the positive impacts on literacy and language development demonstrated by children who entered Head Start at age 4 had dissipated by the end of third grade. It showed that those students, on average, were academically indistinguishable from their peers who had not participated in Head Start.

The $8 billion Head Start program serves nearly 1 million low-income children nationwide.

In the study, mandated by Congress in 1998 for 3- and 4-year-old children entering Head Start for the first time in 2002, researchers examined a nationally representative sample of Head Start programs. Results of the study were delayed several times and now come at a tense time for Head Start.

For the first time in the federal program’s history, long-time grantees who provide Head Start services are being forced to compete with other bidders to hold onto funding, an effort by the Obama administration to improve quality.

And, the study’s results could be a factor in swaying lawmakers’ decisions on whether to cut or spare Head Start in ongoing budget negotiations.

Locally, Head Start officials say Congress is off the mark in evaluating the programs because neither they, nor the study, take into account regional demographics or the mission of Head Start.

“We’re a holistic program, and we serve the whole family, not just the child, and it’s not just the academic gains we’re after,” Handy Head Start director NaKisha Martin said. “I’d like to see a similar study of those children from the Head Start background who participate in the program and those who don’t. It would be a truer picture of what these children who go through Head Start really learn.”

In the first phase of the study, researchers found that 4-year-olds benefitted from spending a year in the program by learning vocabulary, letter-word recognition, spelling, color identification and letter-naming compared with children in a control group who didn’t attend Head Start. Three-year-olds in Head Start made even greater gains in language and literacy skills as well as in math and perceptual motor skills.

The second phase of the study showed that the gains had faded considerably by the end of first grade, with Head Start children only showing an edge over their peers in learning vocabulary.

In the final phase of the study, researchers wrote there was “little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through third grade between those children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts.”

Specifically, by the end of third grade, 4-year-old Head Start participants’ performance on one reading assessment showed they still retained some benefit over their control group counterparts. But the study showed their participation in Head Start showed no positive impacts on math skills, promotion or teachers’ reports of the children’s school accomplishments. About 40 percent of the children in the control group didn’t receive formal preschool services; the rest did, just not through Head Start.

Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Initiative at the New America Foundation, said the third-grade findings were no surprise but raise several questions, such as the amount of time children spent in the classroom and the quality of learning experiences in Head Start.

“We can’t tell whether time and quality made a difference,” she said. “We know the interaction between the child and teacher matters so much and if you are only in a classroom for three hours a day, four days a week and out all summer, the experience is much different than for children who go a full day, a full year and with a strong teacher.”

Martin said her Head Start program is focused strictly on school readiness, and all instruction is age-appropriate with a curriculum that allows each child to receive individualized attention.

Her school houses Head Start classes as well as three classes of pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. She stresses that all the classes are tailored to be developmentally appropriate for each age child.

“It’s true that numbers don’t lie, but Congress must keep in mind that we’re only doing with these children what is developmentally appropriate,” Martin said. “A study including other crucial factors like demographics and parent involvement would be beneficial. All children in this program benefit exponentially with self-confidence and behavior — those features that often fall by the wayside.

“My fear is that we’re moving toward a time that we’ll lose sight of the importance of meeting children where they are. We realize we must be competitive, but it worries me that we’re expecting some unrealistic outcomes with a certain subset. Raise the bar, yes, absolutely. But do it appropriately.”

At Sheffield/Tuscumbia Head Start, director Melissa Montgomery said she is working to get students into the state’s academic tracking system, iNow. Based on both 3- and 4-year-olds’ performance from the beginning of the year to the end, they’re making gains, she said. But tracking through the elementary grades is more important than ever especially with federal dollars potentially being tied to program outcomes.

“We have 148 children we serve from throughout Colbert County, so yes, we’re certainly filling a need,” Montgomery said. “But we want to do more than that. We want to truly have these kids ready to succeed in school.”

Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, called the vanishing impacts of Head Start in the early grades “troubling,” but said Head Start does its core job well by preparing disadvantaged children for kindergarten.

“Our work with students ends when children graduate from Head Start, but it’s clear that for many, their circumstances can continue to hinder their success, including the quality of their primary and secondary education,” Vinci said.

Anderson, a former educator, said that to assume a child can’t achieve success because of a low-income background, is wrong.

“Not all children have support at home but I can attest to what a caring, solid teacher can do for a child,” she said.

“I’ve been associated with Head Start for many years and I’ve seen that program save a lot of kids from falling into the ills of society simply by starting them on the right path,” she said. “It’s impossible to put a value on that.”

Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com

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