Changes to Baltimore's Head Start this fall will provide longer days and an extended school year for hundreds of children in its care, a move intended to help low-income parents free up time for work and boost the youngsters' development.
Under a federal pilot initiative that gives the city more local control over the early education program, Head Start also will shift its focus to younger children by serving more of them, transferring many older children to pre-K programs in city schools.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to announce the changes Thursday.
The federally funded Head Start is designed to help children from poor families become socially, academically and emotionally ready for school while also providing social service resources to their parents. In Baltimore, the program serves about 3,530 children, from infants to age 5.
Britney Tynes-Bey of Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood said she'll be able to pick up more hours at work when her 3-year-old twin daughters, Mikayla and Milan Bratton-Bey, can spend the extra time at the Union Baptist Harvey Johnson Head Start Center after Labor Day.
"I couldn't afford to put them in day care," said Tynes-Bey, who works three part-time jobs. "I would be working to pay for day care."
Attending the classes has accustomed her daughters to a routine and helped them become more independent, she said. In separate classrooms, the twins have learned a great deal from interacting with other children, including introducing themselves and mastering potty training, Tynes-Bey said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently gave the city authorization to design a program better suited to meet local needs, said Shannon Burroughs-Campbell, director of the city's Head Start. The program is run by a collaboration of public and private partners.
The shift comes after an analysis of early childhood providers in Baltimore showed a need to focus more resources on 3-year-olds, Burroughs-Campbell said.
Under the five-year pilot program that begins this fall, the year-round Early Head Start program for infants to age 3 will serve about 260 children and pregnant mothers, up from about 175.
In addition, Head Start will expand the 160-day school year for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds by 10 days. And all children will receive six hours of care when classes resume Sept. 2. About 600 had been in classes for 31/2 hours a day.
As part of the changes, the program is expected to reduce the number of older children it serves to about 2,860 from 3,350. Head Start eligibility is based on a family's poverty level and whether a child has a disability, and older children with the greatest needs will stay in the program.
The city school system says coming up with an added $2.7 million to cover the cost of educating the additional 4- and 5-year-olds will be difficult but worth the investment.
"We are very excited about this opportunity," said Nakia Hardy, the city schools' director of teaching and learning. "The more services we can provide to our early learners, the greater the benefit, not only to the children and the schools, but also to the city."
Enrolling more children in the schools' pre-K classes will provide gains in socialization and language that will pay dividends throughout their academic careers, Hardy said.
In Head Start, the children spend parts of their days interacting with one another during structured play, reading with their teacher, participating in music and movement sessions, sharing family-style meals and cleaning up after themselves.
Head Start also is focused on serving the entire family by connecting parents to family service coordinators, who link them with available resources, such as medical and dental exams, college tuition assistance and permanent housing.
Gayle Headen, who runs the Union Baptist program, said expanding full-day classes will help many of the parents juggle work schedules.
Although the Union Baptist program will serve 175 children, down from 214, as it expands the number of hours for every child, Headen said the change will help Head Start better serve children and families.
"Head Start's core value is that the child's parent is the child's first and most important teacher, and that framework informs everything that we do here," Headen said. "We partner completely with the parents, because the child's education doesn't occur simply within the school walls."
Baltimore is one of five communities selected by the Health and Human Services Department to participate in the pilot. The city will receive $29 million on July 1 to operate the program, about the same as for the current year, Burroughs-Campbell said.
"By encouraging our applicants to consider the needs of children from birth through preschool in their own towns and cities, we are promoting a consistent, tailored approach to ensure that children are developing the skills and tools they need for elementary school all across our nation," Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start, said last year when the pilot was announced.
Burroughs-Campbell said the Head Start program won't be compensating the city schools for the children it's shifting to the system, but the city and schools have an agreement that the schools will serve the youngsters that Head Start refers to it.
"Finding and targeting the children who need services is something everyone is committed to, all along the trajectory of the system," Burroughs-Campbell said. "We have a shared vision that every baby born in Baltimore who is eligible for services will receive cutting-edge services."
Long-term planning efforts by a continuum of providers identified a gap in services for 3 year olds, Burroughs-Campbell said. By shifting more older children to public schools, Head Start can accommodate more of the younger children, she said.
Children who turn 5 by Sept. 1 go to kindergarten. The 5-year-olds served in Head Start are those who have birthdays after the start of the school year.
City schools spent $32 million to educate 4,800 pre-K students in the current school year, according to spokeswoman Edie House Foster.
City schools expanded pre-K classes with more seats and full-day classes in 2009, and coming up with the money was difficult. But officials say the investment is worth it, based on school readiness benchmarks seen in children coming from the pre-K classes.
To pay for the additional 400 children, Foster said city schools will use a combination of state and federal funds. Districts also can apply for a portion of the $4.3 million that the General Assembly made available this year for pre-K expansion.
"We do not see it as a burden; it could be a challenge, but the benefits far outweigh any challenge," she said. "It is a priority for us, and we will keep reaping the benefits."