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Getting a Head Start on School

Last month, Voices for Children and First Focus co-authored an editorial published in the Omaha World Herald on the need for federal investments in pre-Kindergarten programs.  The Editorial has sparked some responses related to the Head Start Program and the program’s perceived “failure.”  In light of this, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the Head Start Program here on our blog.

Head Start is a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to five from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development.  It was originally launched in 1965 as a summer “catch up” program for lower income children to help prepare them to start Kindergarten.  When it was found that the summer catch-up model was inadequate, the program was expanded to a year-long model in the 1980s and it was expanded again in the 1990s  to reach younger children as research began to show the importance of brain development in the earliest years.

The controversy around Head Start stems from a report from the Department of Health and Human Services that attempts to look at the impact of Head Start on children in their early years of schooling.  The study found that many of the initial gains made by Head Start kids were no longer present by the 3rd grade.

For us, this study raised some important questions.  What is tells us is that we have to revisit the structure and standards of the Head Start Program and consider how to make it more effective.  The study also raises important questions about the relationship between early education and the K-12 system and what we need to do to make that relationship stronger.

What the study did not do, is declare the entire program a failure.  There is still ample evidence that investing in children’s early years is essential and Head Start is an important piece of the puzzle in making those investments.  We can, and should, be working to improve the Head Start Program.  But to do away with it entirely would be, to borrow from proverb,” throwing the baby’s education out with the bath water.”

It’s also important to note that Head Start isn’t the only piece of the early childhood puzzle.  While it’s the most recognized example of federal investments in young children, not all kids participate in Head Start.  Our future prosperity as a state and nation depend on investments in young children.  Creating quality early learning environments, no matter if they happen in child care settings or in pre-K programs provided by local school districts, are the key to making sure all of our children are ready to succeed.



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