NEW YORK — In some ways, it's just another ordinary day at the Bloomingdale Family Program's Head Start center on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Children are rolling clay, listening to a story, learning about the roots of a plant. A speech therapist is bent over a tiny table having a one-on-one session with a small charge, while the kitchen staff prepares a hot lunch. And the teachers are busy readying yet another crop of 4-year-olds for the transition to kindergarten.
Yet, to executive director Susan Feingold, things don't feel normal and they don't feel right. In almost 40 years of working with Head Start, "This is the most threatening attack I've ever seen," she says. "The program as we know it is being dismantled."
There's seldom been a moment in its 38-year history when the federal program, devised to better prepare low-income children for school, hasn't been under attack of some kind. Jimmy Carter tried to shuttle it from one department to another during his presidency; Ronald Reagan cut it in half during his.
Fiscal conservatives always railed against it, and governors have never liked the way its funding stream completely passes them by.
But perhaps there's never been a moment quite as troubled as the current one.
Legislation recently introduced by House Republicans, based on recommendations from the Bush administration, suggests large-scale changes for Head Start, which serves almost a million children with a budget of approximately $6 billion.
Perhaps most disconcerting to program advocates is a drive to move Head Start away from concern with a child's many needs - not just academic, but social, emotional, and physical - to a much tighter focus on teaching early reading and math skills. "We would become reading and writing centers and nothing more," Ms. Feingold says.
Currently, the program she administers does teach early literacy and number skills, but also offers art, music, gardening, yoga, play therapy, speech and occupational therapy. It also provides free parenting and English classes for parents. The center ensures that all children receive medical and dental checkups.
Although not all Head Start centers necessarily have offerings as rich as those at Bloomingdale, Head Start supporters say that kind of comprehensive support is required to help children living in poverty prepare for school.
But others disagree.
"It's a good idea to turn Head Start into an explicit cognitive preschool program with emphasis on the word 'school,' as opposed to having children just being looked after and taken to the dentist and being hugged and being fed," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. "I have no objection to the former, but if you want to read in kindergarten and first grade you have to know a lot before you get there."
In its present form, Head Start is "a missed opportunity," Mr. Finn says.
It's hard to take any kind of objective reading of Head Start's success in preparing low-income children for school. Studies done of the long-running program present conflicting results.
Various well-documented studies indicate that children who participate in Head Start demonstrate better reading and math skills, are less likely to fail a grade or need special education, and are more likely to finish school.
Yet other studies have shown either no particular academic benefit to Head Start participation or an early academic "boost" that fades with passing years.
"The program has been around for 30 years and there's no consistent evidence that [Head Start] works," says Krista Kafer, policy analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
But at local levels, officials and children's advocates say they've seen Head Start serve their communities effectively.
"Head Start is an incredibly valued program in New York," says Gail Nayowith, executive director of Citizens' Committee for Children of New York. "The research is clear that it works."
Support for Head Start on an anecdotal level has always been strong, with many of the 21 million children it has served - and their families - quick to speak in its defense.
That's not to say anyone is suggesting the current system is perfect.
Ms. Nayowith and many others who support Head Start agree that there would undoubtedly be benefits to better coordinating the federal program with the various state and local early-education programs that now abound.
But their concern is finding a way to do so that preserves the basic structure of Head Start. "Obviously, we're [hesitant] to tamper with success," she says.
Perhaps due to the broad support the program receives, House legislators have already backed off on one of the more controversial proposals in their bill.
In recognition of the fact that 40 states run early education programs of their own, it had been suggested that states would be offered the option to merge Head Start into their programs and govern both through funds received as a block grant.
Most Head Start supporters were horrified and saw the proposal as an early step toward obliterating the program.
"Can you think of a worse time to block-grant anything to the states?" asks Augusta Kappner, president of New York's Bank Street College of Education. Given current state-budget shortfalls, she says, "It would be very, very easy for states to cut back not only on Head Start but also on their own early education programs."
In the face of sharp criticism, House Republicans rewrote the bill to allow no more than eight states to take over Head Start on a trial basis.
It's a move that eases - but doesn't necessarily erase - concerns in the Head Start camp. "It slows down the process," says Feingold, but she worries that the goal - merging Head Start into state programs and allowing it to lose its special character - remains the same.
One of the most valued components of Head Start is its degree of parental involvement, says Edward Zigler, director of Yale University's Center in Child Development and Social Policy and one of the original architects of the program.
Each Head Start center is governed by a policy council, of which at least half the participants are parents. That's in contrast to the Title I educational programs run through block grants to the states, Dr. Zigler says. "They've never gotten good parental involvement," he says. When it comes to such programs, "the states do not have a good track record."
Further adding to the furor over the Bush administration's recommendations on Head Start was a May 8 letter from a Health and Human Services official to all Head Start centers warning the centers against attempting to stir up resistance to the proposed changes.
The letter suggests possible criminal or civil penalties if those involved tried to lobby against the bill. The National Head Start Association announced last week that it is filing suit in a federal district court against the Bush administration for violating its freedom of speech.
It's part of what Feingold calls a "crass" element to the way the Bush administration has sought to remake Head Start.
Yet some of those who seek to reform the program say workers like Feingold see a threat where none actually exists.
"There's no reason why you can't focus on health, social development, and school readiness at the same time, and some Head Start centers are already doing that," Ms. Kafer says. "The need is for standards that make everybody get in line."
But Ziegler says the word "standards" is most likely to apply exclusively to academic standards. He is dismayed to hear some policymakers say that the goal of Head Start should be to bring low-income children up to the same literacy level as middle-class children by kindergarten - an aim he considers unrealistic.
"You've got to close the gap as much as you can," he says.
But one year of Head Start, many argue, cannot be expected to give a low income child the same vocabulary soaked up by children from more privileged backgrounds, who typically benefit from wider exposure and richer experiences.
But there's one thing Zigler says he's learned over years of working with politicians, and it makes him nervous with respect to the future of Head Start. "The easiest way to destroy a program," he says, "is to give it an unrealistic goal and then say, 'Look, it's not meeting that goal.' "