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A quiet revolution for Head Start

June 16, 2000

Last year, after 34 years, Washington County's Community Action Council decided to give up the role it had played in managing the local grant for Head Start, a program that serves low-income pre-schoolers. At the time, many in the community anticipated that there might be some minor changes, but that the program would continue pretty much as it had before.

They were wrong. The $2.1 million grant was obtained by Resources for Families and Children, itself an agency that was spun off from CAC some years ago. And instead of continuing to split the program between RCF, which operates at three sites and the school board, which operated it at five sites, RCF will do the entire program.

The bone of contention and the subject of much fevered and whispered conversation in the non-profit community, is that under federal guidelines, RCF instructors need not be certified teachers. By 2002, federal guidelines will only require Head Start instructors to have two-year degrees, or a plan for obtaining one.

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Sources within the school system inform me that teachers can tell who's come from which program, that the kids who've been in the Head Start program run by the school board (with its certified teachers) do better academically than those in RCF's program.

But the evidence for that is essentially hearsay, because according to school officials, there's been no tracking of the two programs' students. In other words, they have a gut feeling, but haven't got the statistical evidence. And now that RCF has the grant, school officials really don't want to start that fight, probably because at some point someone will ask them why they didn't crunch those numbers before the grant was awarded.

About the only one talking on the record now is Paul Pittman, RCF's executive director, who defends his program and the changes that are going to come as a result of his agency's negotiations with federal officials.

"Head Start currently serves children for three-and-a-half, four hours a day," Pittman said.

But as a result of welfare reform and many people entering the workplace for the first time, Pittman said there was a need for full-day services.

This year 418 students were served, Pittman said, but because the grant is essentially the same amount as last year's, there was no way to serve that many students all day.

"We wrote our grant initially for 400, but when the federal government started talking to us, they asked if we would consider a more full-day, full-year program," Pittman said.

After some negotiations, the two sides agreed that 367 children would be served for longer periods of time, Pittman said.

That's less than the 418 now being served. Does that mean that some children now in Head Start will be excluded?

No, said Pittman. Because the program serves children ages 3 to 5, many of the children now in the program will "graduate," so to speak, he said. Whether there will be parents who can't get their children into the program will depend on many things, Pittman said, including what services those parents want.

"We're going to look at all those who've been recruited by the school system," he said.

"If the school board would like to continue working with us, it's in our best interest to keep working with them on any services provided to pre-schoolers," Pittman said.

What about the credentials of the instructors?

"Head Start nationally is not able to fund teaching positions for those with four-year degrees," Pittman said.

Nevertheless, he said RCF had budgeted for a couple of four-year degreed teachers, but "in no way can we match board of education salaries."

Pittman said he would put some of his staff people up against anyone employed by the board of education.

This issue shouldn't be a source of conflict, Pittman said, because "we want to work with the school system to advocate for additional services for all children," including full-day kindergarten.

The school system is putting together a pilot program for that at the Marshall Street Center, but like everything else, extending it to the entire system will involve finding new sources of funds.

Because it's of little interest to the general reader, this column hasn't delved into the all the back-and-forth that took place during the grant-application process.

The school board has correctly determined, in my view, that it would be a waste of time to squabble over this, and worse, might prompt some parents to avoid the RCF program altogether when right now, it's the one of its type in town.

"Head Start has been my baby for many years," Pittman said, adding that he first visited a program site when working for the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey.

"It really troubles me to hear a lot of the false facts and rumors," Pittman said, adding that the reality is that Head Start is a "change agent" that helps children and families change their lives for the better.




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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