Rethink Head Start? Let's Begin Here

January 01, 1995|By PETER H. FRANK

My 4-year-old son, Sam, has a big problem in school. He loves it. He is interested. He is cared for. He has fun. He is learning.

Yes, his class is too good. So what will he think years from now -- while staring out the window of a class that is too big, uncreative and unchallenging -- when he remembers his first sweet taste of school? He will realize he was duped into at least a dozen more years of classes with the tacit promise at 4 that learning can be exciting. He will come to me to explain this cruel educational bait-and-switch.

And I will tell him how it all started: the MIND program and Mr. Bob -- program developer, teacher, part-time farmer, carpenter, friend and full-time leader. "I just have this profound respect for people's capacity to survive and do wonderful things," he says.

I first realized we had a problem last year, when Sam's older brother came home from the MIND program one day. After much prodding about what he had learned, Henry's eyes jumped to attention and with hands cutting the air for emphasis, he proclaimed: "Oh, this is so great! It's called an overhead projector!"

Well, if Mr. Bob could make a light bulb, lens and mirror exciting, I knew then we would certainly be in trouble when the class began cutting and nailing two-by-fours and baby food-bottle caps into trucks, planes and boats. (We still have six of them.) Or began mapping and constructing the Inner Harbor with wooden blocks. Or began building a farm, complete with barn and bales of hay.

The real clincher, though, came at the end of the year, when the children flew to the moon. That's right.

One group, serving as a medical team, tested the astronauts before and after their voyage. A pilot, co-pilot and mission specialist -- each dressed in NASA-issued jumpsuits -- climbed into a capsule and, during take-off, lights flashed, a countdown blared and rockets thundered. Somewhere in space, the crew was served dried space food by a group that manned a way station. During the adventure, with scenes of space projected on the wall, instructions were given and jobs were accomplished.

For me, it was July 1969 all over again. For Mr. Bob, it was a way to teach the children responsibility and cooperation while keeping them interested and entertained. How sadly novel.

Indeed, the MIND program is unique. Located in rooms provided by Federal Hill Elementary, it is funded as part of the federal Head Start program and overseen by St. Jerome's Head Start. But the similarity between it and the other Head Start programs serving 3,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Baltimore ends there.

The curriculum was developed 10 years ago by Mr. Bob (Revere) and the late Trudy Hamby of the University of Maryland. Based on theories that sound as esoteric as its full name -- the Model for Integrated Neuronal Development -- it has provided an amazing lesson for volunteering college students as well as an inspiration for parents. It has also been used as a research project, funded in part by the Abell Foundation and the USF&G Foundation.

After 10 years of research, Dr. Robert C. Hardy, director of the Institute for Child Study and chairman of the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland College Park, assures us that, despite the failings of later classes, the students' language skills will remain enhanced and resurface.

But after 18 months of experience, I can assure Dr. Hardy that my children have learned a great deal more than working well with words.

A subtle but powerful lesson comes thanks to the research guidelines, which guarantee a lack of homogeneity in the class. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic. Wealthy, middle-class, poor. Employed, unemployed. Two parents, one parent. All are included.

The children don't care. They are bound together with the thread of being 4 years old, with its easy awe and innocent cunning. The varied cultures, social and economic classes and personal abilities are, if not transparent, then a natural point of curiosity.

Most importantly, the children are treated by Mr. Bob and his co-teacher Ms. Kathleen with respect and as people with enormous capabilities -- certainly not as mature youngsters but also not as morons. There are no incessant purple Barney giggles, no silly saccharine songs of self-appreciation. Instead, they are taught ever-broadening views, from neighborhood to city to country to Earth. They are given daily chores to accomplish and encouraged to help each other. They learn to question and express themselves clearly. Along the way, they even learn colors, letters and to wash their hands before eating lunch.

Unfortunately, Henry graduated. Now 5, he attends kindergarten at the same public school where he learned so much last year. But these days his accomplishments include following directions, sitting quietly and coloring nicely. After 2 1/2 hours, he leaves virtually catatonic, aggressively reasserting himself into reality as if just released from a sensory-deprivation tank.

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