'Me, my family, my children have all attended Head Start," says Loukisha Smart-Pennix, now the director of Children's Services with the Chicago Department of Children and Youth Services. "Where I am now would [not] have been possible had I not had my Head Start experience."
That is exactly what Head Start was supposed to do-level the playing field for children in poverty. Give these kids a head start so that when they walk into the kindergarten classroom they are up to speed with other children who have had the advantage of preschool programs.
In the 41 years since the program's launch, millions of American families-such as the Smart-Pennix family-have been affected by Head Start. More than 24 million kids have gone through it. And since the approach is holistic, parents learn too about child care, literacy, nurturing and health.
Even the program's harshest critics concede Head Start has benefitted children.
Still, the federal Head Start budget was cut by 1 percent last year as a result of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2006. While it doesn't sound like much, it means $57.3 million less this fiscal year than last.
In addition, the President signed an appropriations act to keep funding the same for fiscal year 2006. But operating costs increased 7 to 11 percent last year, so that really means another significant cut for Head Start. So much so that National Head Start Association President Sarah Greene refers to this as the "slow-motion demise" of Head Start. Unless Congress gives $234 million, the program will continue to decline, Greene says.
The decrease in dollars doesn't show signs of stopping. In Chicago, Head Start funds go to the city's Department of Children and Youth Services to be distributed to 63 programs. So, the city has absorbed the cuts by "taking a dollar here and a dollar there," says Vanessa Rich, deputy commissioner. But it's only a matter of time before classrooms and kids start feeling the effects.
"[The city is] feeling the impact of rising cost of energy, rising cost of everything else. That's just a reality," Rich says. "We knew that, that's why we tried to absorb as much of that here as we possibly could. The reality is you can only do that for so long."
But the budget cuts are not the only struggle facing Head Start. In the past six years, several attempts have been made to make major changes in the program-one of few federal monies not given to the states for distribution. (Head Start funds go directly to the programs.) Particularly controversial was the National Reporting System-a standardized test (although officials insist it is not a test but an assessment) for 4-year-olds.
Head Start supporters say those going after the program are just interested in controlling the large pot of federal money. Others believe the program needs updating and are looking for proof of Head Start's success.
Chicago Parent wanted to take a look and see just how Head Start is doing: Who is right here? Is it a program worth saving? Or has it run its course?
How do you measure the success of a program such as this?
The government created the Impact study. In government speak, the study is intended to: "determine whether Head Start has an impact on participating children and their parents and, if so, whether such effects vary among different types of children, families, communities and configurations of children's early care and program experiences."
The test includes twice-yearly, in-person interviews with parents, child assessments, annual surveys with care providers and teachers, direct observations of the quality of the care settings and teacher ratings of children, according to Head Start director Channell Wilkins. Data collection for the Impact study began in 2002 and should be completed this year. Preliminary results show that Head Start students do benefit from the program, but the gap between low-income children and other children has not yet been closed.
This gap shows up in a "developmental lag" according to Julius Richmond, the program's first director. In other words, at-risk kids lose the gains their peers are making in education, health and social services.
Richmond says government officials have been asking for proof that the program works since the beginning, but such evidence is hard to provide.
"All of the long-term studies show that children who have the advantage of a preschool program grow up performing better in every respect: lower delinquency, more high school graduation and college attendence, less welfare and less dependency. You can't measure it through cognitive scores," he says. "Anecdotal things aren't very quantitative, but people have vivid memories that Head Start impacted them."
While the government waits on test results, Head Start programs nationwide are suffering and even closing. Chicago is sacrificing new copy machines, delaying filling positions and cutting employee health benefits to protect the children's program.
No Chicago programs have closed yet, but without a funding increase, they will.
Some Head Start programs are looking elsewhere for money. Louis Falk, director of Head Start at Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago, says he is not concerned about fluctuating funds.
"I don't think we're going to see the effects of that," Falk says. "We don't see any real cuts coming for us at all. Head Start is federal, but we also have the state pre-kindergarten funding and the subsidized childcare funding through the city."
Erie House also has private donors. As a result, the program is able to continue providing specialized services such as an on-site psychologist and a speech therapist. "We've actually increased teacher salaries. We haven't had to close any services at all at this point because of our other funding," says Pam Costakis, director of state pre-kindergarten programs at Erie.
Seeking outside funds may be the best-or only-option for Head Start programs looking to protect the quality of their services.
"Head Start grantees face some tough budgetary decisions. However, the creativity and ability of grantees to work with other funding sources to increase capacity and maintain quality is extraordinary," says Wilkins, director of Head Start.
"Universal Pre-k and other state programs offer opportunities to offset the 1 percent cut as well as serve more children. Head Start has been on the leading edge of early childcare research and education for 40 years," says Wilkins, who believes the programs will be in a good position to get money from foundations and philanthropic organizations looking to support early childhood education.
Mary Ellen Caron, Chicago's commissioner of Children and Youth Services, is inclined to criticize the results of these assessments.
After years of working with Head Start and other programs for at-risk children, Caron uses the evidence she sees in people in addition to numbers to support her opinions.
"The problem with the decisions made by policy makers about Head Start in particular but about any program that helps poor people or people of color in this country, is that they don't understand that people who live in poverty are already 50 paces back," she says.
"They want to say that Head Start has been a failure because it does not catch them up to what privileged children can do. It has gotten kids 30 or 40 paces forward-so the fact that the kid is healthier than they would be without Head Start, that their teeth aren't decaying, and that their mother might have found a job is not measured like whether they know the alphabet or not."
Anne Halliday is an intern coordinator at Chicago Parent and a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
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