Boston — Margarita Ortiz, a young Nicaraguan mother, sits on a tiny chair in a circle with about a dozen four-year-old children. Their faces are Asian, black, Hispanic, and white. These tots -- who come from low-income families in Boston's South End -- are learning to recite and clap in unison. Later, on certain days, another instructor helps them with paints, crayons, words, colors, or numbers. They are taught to clean up after themselves. And every day, someone reads to them for half an hour.
These children are in the Boston Head Start program -- one of 1,300 such programs nationwide, established under legislation passed 20 years ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson's ``war on poverty.''
Head Start was controversial in the early years. In Mississippi, the cars of Head Start volunteers were bombed; many blacks who sent their children to the program lost their jobs.
But today Head Start is one Great Society program that both liberals and conservatives generally agree has had a positive social effect.
Currently funded at more than $1 billion annually, and serving about 450,000 children, Head Start is the nation's biggest single effort to help disadvantaged families get their children ready for first grade.
``If these kids weren't here,'' says Cathy Harris, another Boston Head Start teacher, ``they'd be running around at home without much guidance.''
The program offers ``comprehensive child development'' -- social, health, as well as educational services. (This is one reason it resides in the federal Department of Health and Human Services, instead of the Department of Education.)
While Head Start has not broken the ``cycle of poverty,'' as it set out to do in 1965 -- ``We had such unbelievably high hopes in those days,'' one early worker remembers -- experts agree it has made an important difference.
A study released last October by New York University professor Martin Deutsch showed, for example, that since 1965, 57 percent of the students who had participated in Head Start graduated from high school, in contrast with a graduation rate of 36 percent for those who were eligible but did not participate.
Pat Graham, dean of the Harvard School of Education, points out that ``the reason nine-year-old boys in the South -- black and white -- have learned to read is not because Mommy and Daddy read to them, but because they went through government programs like Head Start.''
Yet most educators interviewed by the Monitor agree that, while Head Start is providing excellent human services (many children receive their first dental check-up in the program), its educational side could be improved considerably. It's not a matter of poor curriculum or evaluation, longtime observers say, but of low-quality or inexperienced staff.
To a degree, the problem is built-in. Top priority for teaching and staff positions goes to parents of the children themselves. They receive training on the job, and become qualified for work in much-needed and better-paying positions outside Head Start. [See related story on Page B12.]
This career boost for parents has always been part of the Head Start idea; an untold success story, in fact, is the number of Head Start parents who have gotten off of welfare and turned their lives around by developing child care skills.
But Head Start salaries are so low -- $7,000 is the annual average -- that staff turnover approaches 50 percent a year. As a result, children in the program frequently do not get the experienced teachers they need.
``We can't keep our trained teachers longer than a year,'' says Candy Oliva, an official at the South End Head Start program, who is herself planning to leave at the end of the spring term. ``There is no way a single mother can make it on that salary.''
Such conditions help explain why, in the view of some, Head Start is not offering the education it could. One analysis, for example, released last fall by CSR Inc., a Washington research firm, argues that, while Head Start students do well in their first two years of school, there is no evidence of greater long-term educational gain. Critics say teachers with child development skills could make a difference.
Head Start officials reply, however, that the main reasons children from the program don't do better in school are the low standards and lack of challenge in the public schools themselves.
Robert M. Coard, director of the Boston Head Start program, says, ``The kids from Head Start are primed when they enter the first grade. They know how to work with other children, and many have reading skills. But they fizzle out in those classrooms . . . .''
Nonetheless, observers both in and out of the program agree there is a need for better staffing and funding. Given current budget-cutting inclinations in Washington, however, neither seems likely to happen soon. With minority populations growing, and greater demands for Head Start services, it all adds up to longer waiting lists in Head Start offices around the country.
Lack of funds is also the reason, educators say, that there has never been the kind of major study of Head Start that could clear up ambiguities about the successes and failures of the program, and help shape policy. At present, policy is based on a composite of smaller, often unrelated studies.
Though administration officials recognize the need for more money, Health and Human Services Department officials have mostly expressed relief that the program has not been cut further.
Another problem: The missionary zeal of the early days of the program has waned, and in several major Head Start programs, parent involvement is down as well. ``For one thing, parents are working more today,'' says Cindy Collen-Holt, head of the South End program. Others say parents take Head Start more for granted than in the days when the programs was new.
Yet with the school dropout rate topping 40 percent nationwide in rural areas and among minority populations, and with tougher academic standards coming as a result of education reforms, educators say the need for Head Start is as great as it has ever been.