For years educators have known that Head Start programs provide significant help for poor children. Kids who attend Head Start do better when they enter school and are less likely to drop out. Yet recent studies also indicate that without strong follow-up -- such as intensive tutoring, smaller class sizes, social workers and parent liaisons -- the benefits of the program eventually fade.
These findings raise a dilemma for policy makers: Should scarce dollars be used to make one or two years of Head Start available to every eligible youngster? Or should the aim be to serve fewer students but offer follow-up programs for four or five years?
Two of the studies examined Chicago's Child-Parent Centers, where 55 percent of the children came from families on welfare. The centers enrolled children from age 3 through the third grade, limited class sizes to 20 and hired full-time nurses and social workers to help troubled families. Result: Children who spent at least four years at the centers not only did much better than children with no Head Start experience, but the longer the children stayed the better they did later.