Before the school bell

March 31, 2003

MORE THAN 20 million lives made better in nearly 40 years of service. This is the legacy of federally funded Head Start, launched in 1965 as a preschool program addressing the social, emotional and educational needs of the nation's poorest children.

Head Start now is fighting for its franchise as, increasingly, public schools recognize that to close the learning gap between the haves and have-nots, they also must begin earlier - with 3- and 4-year-olds.

Instead of competing, taxpayer-funded preschool programs and school systems should be collaborating. It's a financial reality in times of strapped budgets, but it's also an educational reality.

The Bush administration has seen this light: It's asking Congress this year to allow the Department of Education and interested states to take control of Head Start programs, provided they can maintain the comprehensive services currently offered and the number of eligible children served. One goal is to increase the emphasis on reading readiness skills.

The devil's in the details, which have yet to be worked out. But in concept, these proposals are not as blasphemous as Head Start advocates want the public to believe. They're correct that Head Start probably can't expand to serve additional children during such a transition, and that its social mission is a key to many children's success.

But Head Start - and other preschool programs serving the neediest children - must evolve, as they have before. If they don't reflect up-to-the-minute research on early language and reading skills and advanced teaching practices, and if they fail to keep pace with elementary school reforms, they will in fact become obsolete.

The challenge is that public schools aren't good at meeting at-risk students' many needs. And Head Start - which generally is not staffed by certified teachers - struggles to keep pace with rapidly rising expectations for academic preparedness. Collaboration between the two makes sense.

Only 52 percent of kindergartners who entered school in September were rated by their teachers as "fully ready" to learn, show Maryland test results released last week.

Among the less prepared were the children who didn't attend preschool the prior year, and the poorest children. Only about 40 percent of them were rated "fully ready" to learn. By comparison, 70 percent of private nursery school students reached the bar.

In a voluntary collaboration with Head Start and other preschool programs, Maryland has set curriculum-like standards for preschool learning, and offered training for preschool instructors. Over time, it's hoped the school readiness test will document the preschools' voluntary efforts to improve.

The Bush administration's proposal for Head Start could help Maryland expand on this progressive effort - and play a greater role in improving the quality of early childhood education programs statewide.

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