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Generous Head Start strained resources Costs and demands of running program overwhelmed county

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the world of Head Start, the Carroll County school system runs a Cadillac of a program.

The teachers are all state-certified with at least bachelor's degrees. They have support from the county's special education experts and staff psychologists, and secretaries who type and copy the reams of federally ordered paperwork.

Finally, the maintenance costs on the Cadillac have become too high.

School officials announced late last month they would let their contract to run Head Start expire at the end of this school year. The broad social services that the program calls for are more appropriate for a community agency and were pulling staff from other duties, said Gregory Eckles, director of secondary schools and acting director of curriculum and staff development.

The story of Head Start in Carroll illustrates how the strengths of the program turned into problems.

For example, the teachers in Carroll have higher qualifications than Head Start requires. But they also earn more than most.

And while Carroll County has spent more than most Head Start programs on salaries, it has saved money by using staff from other areas, such as special education, to support the program, Eckles said.

But it has become too much of a strain on staff members to work with Head Start as well as students in kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.

In addition to teaching children, Head Start also teaches parents -- about child rearing, intellectual development, nutrition, behavior, health and other areas. Parents sit on a policy council, which acts as a small school board and must approve many details before they get to the Board of Education.

"Its strengths are that it is so comprehensive," said Linda Ebersole, who directed Head Start in Carroll from the early 1980s until budget cuts eliminated her position last year. "But it's also what makes it so challenging. It's incredible all you must do."

The goal of Head Start is to prepare low-income children for kindergarten with the same kind of preschool program that other children have.

But that goal requires more social service than the schools can provide and still meet Head Start's rigid requirements, Eckles said.

"Philosophically, I agree with Dr. Eckles completely," said Ebersole, who teaches second grade at Freedom Elementary School in Eldersburg. She said Head Start requirements have grown more narrow over the years to improve the quality of programs around the country. At the same time, though, it has left local programs with less leeway.

For example, she said, teachers in Carroll are versed in child development and write narrative descriptions of students' academic progress on their records. Head Start, however, has a checklist form it wants teachers to use.

Last year, a routine visit by an evaluation team from the regional Head Start office in Philadelphia resulted in a report that seemed contradictory: It praised the curriculum, staff and parents on the policy council, but it cited several "noncompliance" items that dealt with specific forms, recordkeeping and other activities -- such as that toothbrushing was not routinely done.

It was in stark contrast to previous years' reports that were more positive. Ebersole said a few of the findings were inaccurate, and others were based on a cursory look at the program.

Although it is not included in the report, one criticism -- made orally by a team member -- was that teacher salaries were too high.

"Her feeling was we wouldn't have these problems if we did not pay the salaries we were paying," Eckles said. "We indicated the salaries were contractual. And that's the difference between the school system and another agency."

The school system eliminated Ebersole's position to reduce the amount spent on salaries. But that further strained other staff members who had to pick up her administrative duties.

"I think some of the struggles that came about in our trying to manage the program were the staffing," Eckles said. "Not the teaching, but the administrative staff."

Ebersole is saddened to see Head Start leave the domain of the public school system.

"I believe the staff, the parents and myself, and a lot of people at the schools, have put a lot of time and effort and work into the program," Ebersole said. "They've created an excellent infrastructure and a successful program."

She echoed several parents and others who hope the agency that will adopt it can continue offering Head Start in public school buildings, because that is where students will attend kindergarten.

Eckles said that despite the schools' general space shortage, staff members have told him that all schools that now have Head Start classrooms will have room for them next year, too.

"It's a great program," Eckles said. "The earlier we can intervene with kids, the better prepared they will be to be educated down the road."

Head Start began in Carroll County schools in 1966, a year after it was founded nationwide. At first, it was a summer program to prepare children for kindergarten in the fall. In 1981, it became a nine-month preschool held during the regular academic year.

It is still unclear what it will be after June 6, the last day Carroll County schools will operate it.

Parents hope for a smooth transition, and so does Eckles. But even if much stays the same, one change is inevitable: the teachers.

The Head Start teachers are certified to teach elementary school and will be able to take other positions within the school system.

They are school employees, with salaries based on the professional scale Carroll pays: $25,537 to start, with good health insurance and other benefits, and job security in a growing county that is unlikely to lay off teachers anytime soon.

Social service agencies are unlikely to match that compensation or security. Head Start does not require staff members to have a bachelor's degree or state teacher certification, although it does set standards.

At least two agencies are likely contenders for the Head Start contract. YMCA of Central Maryland runs Head Start in Baltimore and Baltimore County, and the Carroll Family YMCA could compete for the contract, said Director David B. Stevenson.

Human Services Programs Inc. of Carroll County also could apply. HSP is a community action agency, the type created by the same 1960s federal anti-poverty initiatives that spawned Head Start. Community action agencies around the country often run Head Start programs, as in Howard County.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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