by KIM HILSENBECK
The Feb. 6 article, “How effective is Head Start?” in the Hays Free Press reported on the findings of the Head Start Impact Study, a congressionally-mandated review of the $7.2 billion-a-year school readiness program for low-income students.
That report, conducted by two well-respected U.S. research firms and other experts, concluded that cognitive gains made by students in Head Start all but dissipated by third grade.
In this follow-up, we talked to local Head Start administrators, teachers and parents who believe that the foundation Head Start provides is not measureable in scores alone.
Suad Hooper, the Head Start program director for Community Action, Inc. of Central Texas (Community Action), is a former Head Start teacher and master teacher (mentor) with 10 years of experience working with the program. Teresa Rivas, the center director for the Head Start facility at Hemphill Elementary, has been with the program for 13 years.
Both of these women say the report does not give the full picture of the importance of the program.
“Head Start deals with the whole child,” Hooper said.
Rivas added that Head Start has a health component to it – students receive vaccinations, wellness checks and dental care in addition to learning age-appropriate math, language, science and history.
“An early start will eventually make an impact in the future,” Rivas said. “I see my early students going to high school, being successful. I see my students being very successful.”
Hooper and Rivas said another important piece of the Head Start puzzle is the quarterly assessments they conduct on students.
“Those results drive the individual plans for each child,” Rivas said.
Those early assessments, says Hooper, include developmental screenings for cognitive development or other health issues, including problems with fine and gross motor skills, speech, problems cutting with scissors, riding a bike or tricycle and running. When teachers find those issues early on, it can lead to early referrals.
Critics of Head Start also question why the program is housed under the Department of Health and Human Services and not the Department of Education.
Hooper said it’s a historical location for Head Start, probably because it is connected to other social service programs. But Hooper said the program is working with the Dept. of Education to create a quality rating system, connect the curriculum and share data.
She and Rivas also emphasized the family connection component of the Head Start philosophy.
“This is a family program,” Rivas said.
According to Rivas and Hooper, parents are encouraged to come to the center and get involved with the program.
Felicia Nunez, a Hispanic woman in her 20s, is one of those parents. This Kyle mother of a three-year-old son at Hemphill’s Head Start does not agree with the report’s findings.
Speaking through Rivas as her translator, she said she has seen an advance in his learning since her son started the program several months ago.
“How can these kids in Head Start not get ahead,” Nunez asked?
She explained how her son’s behavior and skills improved since coming to Head Start.
“I have seen a lot of changes,” Nunez said. “He had very delayed language for his age. I have seen his language developing more.”
Nunez explained how her son now uses scissors better and is starting to write with a pencil.
“He wasn’t able to use them very well before he started here,” she said. “He is also writing lines and his trying to use a pencil has improved.”
She also said because of Head Start, she started reading to her son more at home. Was she doing that before he started the program?
“To tell you the truth, no,” she said.
Early literacy is a driving factor behind Head Start, which was started by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to increase school-readiness for impoverished students.
Nunez also said her son’s behavior has gotten better.
“He knows how to follow rules,” she said.
Nunez said by his being at Head Start, she feels he is already a step ahead of children his age.
She had him at home each day before enrolling him in Head Start. Nunez learned about the program when she signed up for English as a second language classes at the Kyle Learning Center.
She is now able to attend ESL classes while her son is in Head Start. She also comes in to volunteer a few hours a week. Nunez believes Head Start has had a positive impact on her son and her family.
Hooper said Head Start now is realizing that, “We didn’t measure. “We were so determined to make that impact that really we weren’t measuring it,” she said.
She said Johnson’s goal in 1965 to close the learning gap in five years was very ambitious.
“They thought poverty can be curbed in five years,” she said.
Despite the report, Hooper said without Head Start, students probably would never be at the same level as other children by third grade.
Hooper said the support parents receive from Head Start is based on best research practices, and that low-income families need extra help.
“Poverty forms the thinking of the family,” she said.
Hooper said parents in low-income homes are not thinking about the color of the baby’s nursery.
“Poverty kills hope and what Head Start tries to do is bring that hope back,” she said.
Current Head Start teacher Annette Navarro said her daughter, Alexis, went to Head Start years ago when Navarro was a single mom. Alexis is currently at Chapa Middle School and about to be inducted into the National Junior Honor Society.
“I give everything to Head Start,” Navarro said. “They gave her opportunities I probably wouldn’t have given her.”
She said of course she and her husband support her daughter – a critical component of the Head Start program.
“But Head Start was the foundation of my daughter’s education,” Navarro said.