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Head Start: Assessing what can't be measured

Now that sequestration is upon us, our nation's leaders continue to debate which federal programs provide the best bang for the buck. When they ask how effective Head Start is, many legislators have cited the Head Start Impact Study. It concludes that although Head Start consistently closes the achievement gap and prepares many of America's poorest and neediest children for kindergarten, by third grade most children across the nation outperform and outscore children who attend Head Start. The main arguments regarding the study's conclusions have focused on where to affix responsibility for the "reopening" of the achievement gap: with Head Start or the elementary schools that Head Start children later attend.

I suggest that to determine Head Start's true effectiveness, lawmakers take a closer look at the impacts that Head Start programs make on children and families that are not as easily quantified. Having served as a preschool and kindergarten teacher, education specialist and Head Start project director, I would like to share my life study of what I call "immeasurable impacts."

I will never forget my first day of teaching at the 102nd Street School in the Watts section of Los Angeles. At circle time, when children sit on a rug and have an opportunity to talk about themselves and their lives, one 4-year-old boy shared that his dad kept a gun under his pillow. For a young child growing up in a community where daily acts of violence were a way of life and where he and his parents could not even feel secure in their own home, my classroom was his safe haven. It was a place for him to play, to laugh and to learn with others from his neighborhood without fear. Head Start programs continue to be located in some of the most violent communities and continue to provide this sustaining oasis where children can grow up worry-free for up to eight hours or more each day, Monday through Friday. Impact: immeasurable.

During summers when I was not teaching preschoolers, I taught parenting classes to mothers and fathers in East Los Angeles. These 10-session classes focused on teaching young parents about the stages of child development and appropriate practices for supporting their child's emotional, social, physical and academic development and growth. We also studied strategies for addressing difficult behaviors, with a focus on alternatives to corporal punishment. The curriculum was adapted from a child abuse prevention program.

Parents shared their challenges and expressed their frustrations at not knowing how to respond when their children misbehaved. Parents sometimes cried as they described their feelings of helplessness. They were relieved to hear that other parents struggled with the same problems and were then grateful to learn effective and positive ways to respond to and support their children. Head Start programs consistently provide some of the best models for involving parents, valuing and strengthening their role as their child's first teacher. Impact: immeasurable.

In the mid-90s, I served with the Riverside County Office of Education in California as a Head Start education specialist, providing training, technical assistance and support to early childhood educators throughout the county. I remember visiting a Head Start classroom in the farming community of Coachella just east of Palm Springs. This program served a large number of migrant and seasonal farm worker families. During this visit, I observed a 4-year-old girl on an outdoor swing. When I walked closer I saw that one of her arms was only partially formed, ending at the elbow. She swung as fast and as high as any other child her age as she held on tightly to the chains with both of her arms. When I spoke with her teacher, I learned that this little girl was not classified as disabled since no adaptations were required for her to fully engage in all preschool activities, including climbing and swinging.

Head Start programs have provided high-quality, inclusive services for children with and without disabilities since its inception. Today it remains the only preschool program that mandates that at least 10 percent of the children enrolled and served be children with disabilities, including children with severe disabilities. Impact: immeasurable.

These are just a few examples of impacts achieved every day by Head Start programs. With all Head Start programs facing a 5 percent reduction due to sequestration, I urge legislators to consider the immeasurable impacts that Head Start makes on America's poor and at-risk children and maintain full funding for this vital program.

Alan Guttman, a Baltimore resident, is an early care and education consultant with over 30 years of experience serving children and their families as a teacher, program director, parent educator and college instructor. His email is amguttman@aol.com.

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