When sequester funding was restored earlier this year, one Head Start program in Washington state decided to start a new summer class modeled on the first Head Start program in 1965.
Forty-nine years ago this summer, Project Head Start began as an eight-week summer program that would help communities meet the needs of at-risk preschool children. Shortly after this experiment proved effective, Head Start expanded to a year-round program that would go on to help 30 million at-risk children realize their potential over its 50-year history.
Our nation’s investment in these children was put into question, however, when the 2013 sequester brought an across-the-board 5.7% budget cut, eliminating Head Start slots for 57,525 children in need of the program’s services. Programs and supporters across the country advocated tirelessly for a reversal of the sequester and rejoiced in January of 2014 when all Head Start funds were restored.
Once Spokane County Head Start (SCHS), whose grantee is the Community Colleges of Spokane, received confirmation that the sequestration cuts were being reversed and that they could add back the 34 slots they had lost, SCHS’s District Director, Patty Allen, got to work right away. Because it was already halfway through the school year, the program decided to use the restored funds for a new class that summer. Because this was a new service for the community, outreach and recruitment were incredibly important, just as it had been for that first Head Start summer program in 1965.
It wasn’t long at all before the summer program proved its worth. “In just 4 short weeks, everyone could see the difference the summer program was making in the lives of the children,” Patty said. “They were able to learn their letters and how to spell their names.” But the summer program was not only academic, the children also learned much more about themselves and about others. Observation shows that this kind of instruction prepares children for the next steps in their lives both socially and emotionally. They are also better able to communicate and vocalize their feelings. One parent said that her child “demonstrated more positive behaviors at home, listens better, and follows directions more easily,” Patty said.
In addition to sharpening skills needed to succeed in school, SCHS offered a comprehensive program that allowed families access to health-related services. For instance, a Family Services Coordinator identified through a vision screen that one child needed a full eye exam. The parent was unaware the child had any vision concerns as she had recently completed a well-child exam and the primary care provider hadn’t addressed any vision concerns.
For another family, after the heights/weights screening identified the child as obese, the program’s Nutrition Services Specialist was then able to share obesity prevention resources with the family. As a result of the screening, the family has now taken steps to learn how to prepare healthier meals together.
As we approach Head Start’s 50th Anniversary, programs like Spokane County Head Start shine as examples of innovative early childhood education. Because Head Start constantly adopts new models and adapts the old ones, in the last 50 years the program has been able to open windows of opportunity for over 30 million at-risk children and families; and because of the hard work and innovative ideas coming out of programs like SCHS, these windows of opportunity will be open for generations to come.