Still, Head Start has proven to be an enduring program — one of the oldest anti-poverty programs in the country, popular with educators and the families it serves.

The county Head Start has served nearly 10,000 low-income families since 1965, and, until this year, had grown consistently. It has a waiting list of about 100 children.

"In Howard County, we've shown that when you have a strong partnership between the public school system and Head Start, children excel," Dayhoff said.

According to the State Department of Education, 83 percent of the Howard County Head Start children entering kindergarten this school year tested as "fully ready." That's slightly higher than the percentage for the public school system's pre-K program and up from 38 percent 11 years earlier.

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Head Start works, its advocates say, because it is a holistic, integrated program that includes not only free classroom instruction and meals for the children but help for their families as well, with such services as home visits and referrals.

"I think that we offer a great quality program," said Anne Markson, director of programs and services for the Community Action Council. "Our statistics prove that. Our children are definitely benefiting from our program. Many of our children would be doing nothing if they weren't in Head Start."

Starting early

 With 108 students, Dasher Green is the county's largest Head Start site. Dasher Green students come not just from Columbia, but Elkridge and North Laurel as well; most arrive by bus.

Their day begins at 8:15 with breakfast. After that, they're in small classrooms participating in a variety of specific activities aimed at sharpening reading skills, motor skills, computer skills and more. Lunch is served at 11:35, and the children head home at 12:15.

"In that four hours, we try to get in as much education as possible," said Edward Shields III, center manager at Dasher Green. "What's special about Head Start is we get them at a very early age, at 3 or 4, so we get them at the beginning and can try to educate their minds to what school will be like. … So when they get to elementary school they're already prepared, with their numbers, their letters, their shapes."

Parents are among the program's biggest boosters.

"I love it," said Melissa Evans, of Columbia, who has two children at the Dasher Green center. "They come here for four hours each day and they're learning things all that time. I think it's really getting them ready for school. … I'd recommend this for any parent."

Evans, who works full-time, said the free transportation and meals are added bonuses.

"It's awesome," said Carrie Groves, of Elkridge, whose son, Jacob, is at Dasher Green.

If her son weren't in Head Start, she said, she'd have a hard time affording a similar program, so he'd be home with her.

"I'm not a teacher," she said. "I'd give him what I know, but not the way Miss Edwards (Mary Edwards, Jacob's main teacher) does. It definitely wouldn't be structured learning like this."

Groves said her daughter, now in kindergarten, attended last year, and the experience helped prepare her.

"After this, it wasn't a shock when she got to kindergarten. She kind of knew about rules."

Markson said such success stories are typical, often for entire families.

"The great majority of our families will say they see a great improvement in their children and an improvement in their own ability to access either social services systems or get themselves back to work, to get themselves back on track," she said.

Rather than shrink, Markson would like to see the county's Head Start program expand. Her wish list includes enrolling all of the children on the waiting list, offering six-hour-per-day programs to all Head Start children (now, just 72 of the county children get that much) and adding  Early Head Start, a program for at-risk children from 1 to 3 years old.

Still, she is a realist.

"We are not being told of any more sequestration cuts, but of course, they sprang them on us pretty quickly the last time," Markson said. "There is controversy about the usefulness of Head Start. But we in Howard County certainly feel that for a little bit of money you get a lot of bang for your buck."