WASHINGTON — FOUR-YEAR-OLD Michelle Jackson paints quietly in one corner while her classmates run between teachers' legs in a race to get to toys lined up against a wall.
``Michelle's a little shy,'' says Tina Uzomah, a teacher at a Head Start day care center in Washington. But most children are shy when they enroll in Head Start programs at age four, she says. ``These kids need to start our programs at a younger age.''
The goal of Head Start, one of the most widely supported social programs, is to give pre-schoolers from poor neighborhoods a ``head start'' so they can enter school on equal terms with their more fortunate classmates. But many educators and social scientists are now saying that for most kids, the start comes a bit too late.
Both Congress and the Clinton administration are moving to expand Head Start to include infants and toddlers. ``Waiting for children to turn three in order to be eligible for Head Start is waiting too long,'' says Yale University professor Ed Zigler, one of the program's founders.
``Education can never start early enough, and we feel that [Head Start] needs to address the critical period of a child's development up to three years of age,'' he adds.
In both the House and Senate, a bill has been introduced to provide $120 million for what is called the ``zero-to-three'' initiative: 3 percent of the $4 billion President Clinton has proposed in his 1995 budget for Head Start programs.
While most of the details of the ``zero-to-three'' programs have not yet been ironed out, they will provide family counseling and education services to help parents develop positive relationships with their children, according to Joan Lombardi, the liaison for the advisory committee to HHS. ``Promoting parenting skills and positive parent-child relationships is the dominant force behind this initiative,'' says Ms. Lombardi. ``These two things are emerging as the priorities of families who come to our program and the priorities of this generation.''
Moves to expand Head Start came after Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), put together an advisory committee last year to review the program nationwide. Since it was introduced in 1965, Head Start has served more than 13 million poor, disadvantaged children between the ages of three and five.
The advisory panel found that Head Start reaches only 40 percent of eligible children and that many three-year-olds are already too far behind in their mental development for the program to have a significant effect on their future.
Studies have shown that Head Start's immediate impact on the well-being of disadvantaged children has been positive, short term. Youngsters in the program have access to better health and social services, and their parents have become better educated and more involved in their child's advancement.
But there is no evidence suggesting that Head Start has any long-term effect on a child's overall learning ability and school performance, according to Doug Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. A study conducted for the Department of Health and Human Services in 1985 showed that the educational and social gains registered by Head Start children generally disappear within two years.
STILL, by the year 2000, it is estimated that 1 million children will have entered elementary school ill-prepared for formal schooling, says Bob Hochstein of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. And studies indicate that Head Start children tend to do better in the short-term when they reach school age than those who didn't participate in the program, Mr. Hochstein says.
``Once Head Start expands its focus to include the most critical years of a child's brain development, the years between birth and three years of age, Head Start's success rate will boom,'' Mr. Hochstein says.
``What we've seen is that while Head Start really does give kids a good start, one or two years of working with them is not enough,'' says Ms. Uzomah. ``To really make a difference, you need to catch them before they spend three years at home.''
The problem with Head Start, Ms. Uzomah says, is that it hasn't been ``updated'' to meet the challenges that newer generations face, such as increased use of drugs or alcohol by parents.
The zero-to-three initiative, administration officials say, would at least make a dent in these emerging social ills by placing children in clean, nurturing environments at an early age. It would help low-income families understand the importance of acting as positive role models. Head Start already has some programs that accept kids slightly under three years of age. But according to Professor Zigler, it will take at least a year before the zero-to-three programs are set in motion because officials don't want to expand the programs too quickly.
Grants to implement the zero-to-three programs would be given first to existing Head Start centers, which would introduce the program on a small scale, says one congressional staffer.