In President Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union speech in January of 1964, “The War on Poverty” was declared. Johnson personally appointed Sergeant Shriver to assist him in assembling a committee of academic and civil rights activists. Shriver asked Johns Hopkins University pediatrician, Dr. Robert Cooke, to gather a committee of the best specialists in all fields relating to children (University of Michigan, n.d.).
All members of the committee met in January of 1965 to discuss a program intended to assist children in overcoming obstacles or setbacks caused by poverty. The University of Michigan (n.d.) Web site reports that among the suggested names for the program were “Baby Corps” and “Kiddie Corps.” Many of the committee members felt that having “corps” in the title would help link the program to positive political activism. However, it was ultimately agreed that the name Head Start was most suitable. The name refers to the intended close in the achievement gap between lower class students and their middle class peers. The program’s design afforded these students from lower class communities the opportunity to get academically closer to the assessed levels of their future fellow classmates (University of Michigan, n.d.).
A few months later, in May of 1965, President Johnson publicly announced Project Head Start in the White House Rose Garden. The same year, Head Start began as an eight-week summer program for children from low-income communities on schedule to be enrolled in public schools in the fall. In that summer, more than 560,000 children across the country were served. The program provided preschool classes, dental care, medical care, and mental health services (University of Michigan, n.d.).
The rationale for the institution of the Head Start program, and more importantly, its federal funding, is based on several factors. Children from low-income families are associated with higher rates of academic failure and are at a greater risk for being held back in grade school (Bendersky & Lewis, 1994). There is a higher incidence of teen pregnancy as well as poorer adult employment records among those raised in poverty (Lamb, Land, Meadows, & Traylor, 2005). Teens that have become pregnant are more likely to drop out of school and once out of school they are forced into accepting lower paying jobs.
In turn, they raise their children in poverty. Of children raised in low-income families, 36% attend college, while 88% of students from affluent homes do so (Howard, 2001). Consequently, the disadvantage in terms of wage earning power is perpetuated. There has also been a correlation shown between poverty and an increased likelihood of smoking and illegal drug use (Klerman, 1991). In order to combat the negative consequences of poverty upon a child’s outcome and disrupt the cycle, it was hypothesized that intervention programs in early childhood would positively affect long-term development. In fact, research results have borne this out.
A great deal has been learned from research regarding the knowledge and skills required for children to be academically successful. Among preschool-aged children, letter knowledge, vocabulary, and phonological awareness, in addition to emotional and social factors, have significant impact on later academic success. For instance, predictions of tenth grade students’ reading scores can be, and have been, made with relatively precise accuracy based on knowledge of fundamental concepts such as the alphabet in kindergarten. As a matter of social policy, ensuring that children are equipped with the basic skills proven necessary to begin school ready to learn is a national responsibility (White House Bush Administration, 2004).
Eighty percent of states in the United States have developed initiatives aimed at preparing young children for kindergarten. These 40 states recognize that children from low-income communities typically enter school several steps behind their more privileged peers with regard to skill and basic knowledge. The difficulty is on not only the student, but also the school in compensating for this variance. According to the Head Start Policy Book Web site (White House Bush Administration, 2004) more than half of the children growing up in today’s society are not cared for solely by their biological parents. These various guardianship arrangements play a role in preparation and take a toll on a child’s willingness or ability to focus and be ready to learn the offered curriculum.
In 2001, states were given an additional reason for development of high-quality programs geared toward preschoolers with the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act holds states responsible for making sure that math and reading are proficiencies for all children. Based on research related to the positive effects of quality preschool programs coupled with the accountability factor on states for student performance, states should want to take control of delivering Head Start programs to provide a preschool experience that readies children for entering kindergarten (White House Bush Administration, 2004).
Head Start’s comprehensive program includes activities intended to promote emotional, cognitive, and social development of children, in addition to providing health services for impoverished children. Taking into account studies on quality preschool programs discussed, seven presidents to date have felt that emphasis on early learning, and education as a top priority is the best method for preparing children for success in the long-term. Research shows that successful acquisition of specific language, reading, and social skills early on in a child’s development predicts future success not only in school, but also in life. This success in and out of the classroom has both a direct and indirect impact on the country as a whole. According to the Head Start Policy Book Web site, “Head Start sites that have implemented carefully designed programs that focus on school readiness have shown significant gains for children” (White House Bush Administration, 2004).
The Strengths Framework has been utilized in composing this document. The first component of this framework states, “Social policies are societal responses to social problems.” Head Start is a policy that was designed as a direct response to poverty, which is one of America’s historically greatest social problems. In order for the policy to remain continuously successful for another 44 years, politicians must not lose sight of the positive impact that a high quality education has on children as they develop and ideally become productive members of society.
Two of the most noted studies on early childhood intervention include the Abecedarian project, which began in 1972 and continued to monitor results for over 21 years, and the Perry Preschool study, which began in 1962 and concluded 27 years later. The findings of the Abecedarian project (Campbell, Ramey, Pungello, Sparling, & Miller-Johnson, 2002) included higher cognitive test scores, higher scores for reading and arithmetic, a greater likelihood of attending a four-year college, and a lesser likelihood of becoming a teen parent or using marijuana, for those who participated in the program.
Recounting the results of the Perry Preschool program, as a member of the research team, Dr. Lawrence Schweinhart (2002) reported that 7% of adult participants had been arrested five or more times compared with 35% of those who had not participated and 7% of participants had ever been arrested for a drug-related offense compared to 25% of non-participants. Participants were four times more likely to earn $2000 or more per month, almost 3 times as many own their own homes, and twice as many own a second car. Seventy-one percent of participants either graduated high school or received a GED compared to 54% of non-participants. When taking into account the results of higher earnings and income tax revenue, decreased utilization of special education and welfare services, and savings resulting from crime reduction, the study found that every public dollar spent on the program saved $7.16 in tax dollars.
Early childhood is identified as the period between birth and age five. This period is a critical time as a child develops emotionally, physically, socially, and cognitively in a way that will affect the rest of his or her life. The pre-school learning is vital to success from kindergarten on into college (White House Bush Administration, 2004).
Therefore, the overall goal of Head Start is to influence the level of social competence positively in children from families considered to be living at or below the poverty line. For the purpose of this paper, social competence refers to the child’s effectiveness in dealing with not only his or her current environment, but more about future responsibilities. The interrelatedness of intellectual and cognitive development, mental and physical health, and nutritional requirements are among the most important factors taken into account with social competence (City of Phoenix Human Services Department, 2008).
In the 1998 Reauthorization of Head Start, Congress concentrated on perpetuation of the ideals that school readiness has a tremendous influence on the future of the nation. This was based, in part, on current research showing that improving the educational components of preschool programs is the best predictor of children’s future success in school. According to the White House Bush Administration (2004), “Congress set specific educational goals, including a requirement that at least fifty percent of Head Start teachers have an Associate degree or beyond by 2003, and required prioritized inclusion of reading and math readiness skills in Head Start curricula.”
The Head Start program was created to provide comprehensive services to preschool children of low-income families. Included in these services are health services such as frequent medical screening, immunizations, nutritional assistance, and dental care. The services mostly associated with the Head Start program are cognitive development, school readiness, social skills training and enhancement, and mental health services. In addition, parents are given the opportunity to take part in the decision-making process as to the care of their children and as such, the program fosters parental involvement enhancing community cohesion.
Additional support services for the families of Head Start participants are also provided. Originally, these services were only available to children between the ages of three and five. In 1994, Head Start was expanded to provide these services for infants and toddlers as well with the program extension of Early Head Start. The program also provides services to children with disabilities and their families.
Head Start development programs are intended for low-income families. Family income is one of the primary factors in determining entitlement. The federal poverty guidelines, which are updated annually, are used to evaluate a family’s income. In addition, Early Head Start and Head Start programs must make at least 10% of their enrollment opportunities available to children with disabilities. A family is eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start services if it is able to meet the income guidelines and also one or more of the following:
– You have children from 6 weeks through 5 years, or
– You are pregnant, or
– You have children with special needs with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), or Individual Family Services Plan (IFSP), or
– You have foster children with high risk factors, or
– You are a parent with a disability and/or possessing disabling conditions.
(Source: Parents in Community Action, Inc., 2009)
Additionally, recent changes to entitlement eligibility under 37 U.S.C. 402a (g) allow children and spouses of members of the armed forces who receive supplemental subsistence allowance to withhold that income when being considered for Head Start services. The official verbiage states that any person “who, except on account of such allowance, would be eligible to receive a service provided under the Head Start Act, shall be considered eligible for such benefits notwithstanding the receipt of the allowance. The subsistence allowance would therefore not be counted in determining eligibility for programs authorized by the Head Start Act (Administration for Children & Families, 2009).
Grants are awarded by the federal government to local private and public agencies for the sole purpose of implementing Head Start programs to provide comprehensive child betterment and development services to families and children within their communities. Head Start was primarily enacted as a means of helping children, but it does provide services to low-income families as well in order to indirectly provide positive support to the child’s care system in the home. The mission of Head Start is to “promote school readiness to enable each child to develop to his or her fullest potential” (White House Bush Administration, 2004).
As of 2004, more than 900,000 children annually had been reported as taking advantage of the services offered. These services included comprehensive health services, dental and physical exams, immunizations, and nutritional services, in addition to the education-related services. However, only 20% of the 900,000 children served in 2004 were enrolled in programs that provided full-day/full-year services for children of working families. In the fiscal year 2004, President Bush, according to the White House Bush Administration (2004) requested $6.8 billion in Head Start Program funding, which was an increase of more than $148 million over 2003.
Beyond Head Start, federal legislation has created several other preschool programs aimed primarily at improving upon the academic growth of children considered poor and/or disabled. These include:
– Title I preschool program, which is intended to help prepare children for school in high poverty communities
– Early Head Start to promote healthy prenatal care for pregnant mothers and to enhance the development of infants and children under age 3
– Special Education Preschool Grants, State Grants program, and the Special Education Grants for Infants and Families program, which between them provide funds for states to build early education programs for children with disabilities between birth and age 5.
In addition to the preschool programs that have a primarily educational focus, the federal government provides states with $4.8 billion through the Child Care and Development Block Grant in order to pay for childcare programs. States have also used as much as $4 billion annually from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program to pay for childcare that serves working poor and low-income mothers (White House Bush Administration, 2004).