Preschool program celebrates 25 years of success

GETTING A HEAD START

November 07, 1990|By Jean Marbella

It was just a little storefront on Broadway in East Baltimore. But it was a start -- a big one, as it turned out.

"The parents came in first, to get things in order for the kids," Chanie Brooks remembers fondly. "It was really something, to be part of something like that."

It was new that year, 1965, a preschool program called Head Start. A cornerstone of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start sought to raise the often grim prospects that seemed to doom low-income children before they even started elementary school.

By giving them intensive training on social and educational skills when they were 3 to 5 years old, Head Start officials believed, the kids would enter grade school on a more equal footing with their richer classmates.

Mrs. Brooks' son George, then 3 years old, was in that first Head Start class in Baltimore. Today, both George and Head Start seem to be fulfilling the promise of those early days: George is 28 years old and an airman at Andrews Air Force Base, working toward a career in accounting; Head Start turned 25 years old this year and recently won a $400 million increase in its budget for next year, taking it to about $2 billion.

"Mostly, I remember the social part," says Mr. Brooks. "When I was small, I was on the shy side. But Head Start, it was a relatively small class, so I learned how to relate to other people and not just sit by myself being shy."

His mother explains her decision to enroll him in the program: "He was the type of child who accepted whatever you gave him. But I really wanted him to be more than that. And with Head Start, zoom, he was on his way."

Nearly universally beloved as one of the few '60s-era federal programs to actually live up to its ideals, Head Start has been marking its 25th anniversary all year with various commemorations and accolades.

But Head Start's most notable accomplishments are found on the individual level, in the strides made by many of its 12 million "alumni," children now grown and able to see the effect the program has had on their lives.

"For me personally, it was a tremendously wonderful experience," says Sheila Gibbs, 27. "It puts you in a mind-set where you're very comfortable with social interaction, and it gives you an interest early on in learning."

It's an interest that Ms. Gibbs has kept throughout her life -- she has a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and a master's from George Washington University, and now she's a first-year law student at the University of Chicago.

While Head Start may not be able to take all the credit for her academic accomplishments -- Ms. Gibbs says her parents deserve the bulk of that -- her memories of the preschool remain vivid today.

"I remember getting a lot of personal attention and the teachers were all very friendly and nice," says Ms. Gibbs, a former accountant for the federal General Accounting Office. "Everything was familiar and comfortable. And I remember the naps -- my friends and I joke about how we resisted taking naps because it intruded on play time, but now we'd kill for one."

Her mother, Odell Gibbs, believes the program did exactly what its name promises.

"It started her out really well. I thought when she started school, she was ahead of those who didn't go to Head Start," Mrs. Gibbs says. "I thought she was more assertive, and she listened well."

In fact, Head Start proved to be a spark for mother as well as her daughter. Mrs. Gibbs became an assistant teacher at one of the Head Start centers in 1966, the same year her daughter started attending, and now is head teacher at one of the city's 10 main centers. (There are 25 Head Start sites operated by those centers.) Along the way, she picked up a bachelor's degree at Towson State University and a master's at the University of Maryland.

Indeed, Head Start has been as much a program for parents as for children.

"That's the part I liked about it," says Mrs. Brooks, who worked 13 years as a Head Start classroom aide. "Usually, it's, 'Parents, hands off -- if we need you, we'll call you.' But this was, 'Come right in.' "

"At Head Start, we believe children can't grow unless parents grow along with them," said Barbara Smith, who has been with the program since its early days and now directs the Emily Price Jones center. "The parents have to realize they are the children's primary educators."

Head Start offers several programs for parents -- assistance in getting basic education or employment training skills, for example -- as well as opportunities to volunteer.

Juanita and Franklin Webb still give their time to Head Start even though their son, also named Franklin, is far past its doors -- he is 22 years old and a junior at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.

"Oh, it saved my life," she says of Head Start. "I was one of those older parents having a son, and I couldn't cope."

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