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What makes Head Start Unique? Part 1: Relentless Outreach

Some members of the Head Start community are wary of the prospect of universal pre-K. Cynics and people outside of Head Start might think that these fears are about losing children to other settings or funding to other programs, and the emotional way we express our misgivings about universal pre-K sometimes supports that perception. But this perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.

One of the major reasons that the idea of universal pre-K worries some in our community is because it doesn’t reflect the central role that parents should play in their children’s education.

Last Thursday I spent a captivating afternoon talking and laughing with a group of Head Start parents from Illinois. And listening.  I wish I could somehow recreate the experience of hearing  their inspiring stories. If I could, the cynics might understand that the Head Start community is simply afraid that universal pre-K will not and cannot help children and families in the ways that Head Start does.

For one, Head Start is committed to relentless outreach. To the young woman who was disowned by her family and had to move from couch to couch with her baby while dealing with serious social anxiety, Head Start’s relentless outreach offered a way out of a life on the margins. Another parent had been dealt a really rough hand and wanted a better life for her child, but wasn’t sure she could trust anyone with the baby, or with herself. A Head Start program pursued this parent, built a relationship on respect, and helped ensure that her child was given proper care and would be ready for life.

This kind of unwavering outreach has always been at Head Start’s core. Head Start is committed to finding people who have fallen through society’s cracks, as you can see in these parents’ stories, and as you could see in 1965 when Head Start workers traveled to the most isolated homes in Appalachia, or went door to door in the slums of New York city, or canvassed towns in Mississippi.

It is a core value. It is Head Start’s mission.

We know from research that a child cannot thrive if the caregiver in the family is in bad shape. Will local schools in low-income neighborhoods be able to go search, persist and insist, and then embrace the families whose needs are so many? We worry that maybe they will not.

In fact, I spoke with a school official recently about the impactful interventions Head Start does with families, and she remarked ruefully that they never would have such resources.

Listening to these families from Illinois, I heard stories of how Head Start helped them overcome serious challenges: homelessness, lost jobs, family violence, getting through school, hunger, language barriers, even PTSD. A family with two young children was growing isolated and troubled when the father, an Iraq war veteran, began suffering from post traumatic stress. “Head Start made us a family again,” the mother said.

When one Latina parent translated for another who was not feeling comfortable speaking in English, someone in the group asked sternly whether her Head Start program had not sent her to ESL. “Oh, yes,” she said, and then rattled off a number of ways her program has encouraged her to improve her language skills.

Head Start sees it as its mission to secure children’s trajectories to success by also setting their families in the right direction. By partnering with and empowering parents, Head Start helps remove barriers to their children’s success and deepens parents’ ability to support their children. One of Head Start’s most important, but least celebrated, successes has been this two-generational approach to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Head Start is committed to helping the whole child: that means getting children ready for life, not just school; and that means working with two generations, not just one. Should we keep the national commitment to saving the window of opportunity for the most vulnerable children? Listening to Head Start families, the answer leaves no doubt.