TWENTY-five years ago President Johnson authorized a summer program to help break the cycle of poverty for low-income children and their parents. The program, Project Head Start, is still trying to fulfill that mission. Considered the ``crown jewel'' of the War on Poverty legislation, Head Start has been one program even conservatives don't balk at - at least publicly. Who could argue with wanting to give low-income children a leg up to shrink the gap between them and the more affluent at school?
Today Head Start enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, which is in the process of reauthorizing it through 1994, and President Bush has asked for an additional $500 million for next year's budget. And at a time when businesses are alarmed at the prospects of a shrinking, ill-prepared work force, the Committee for Economic Development has called for full funding for Head Start by 1994.
Some businesses are even getting involved. International Business Machines Corporation hooked up with a Baltimore project to provide computer-based instruction for Head Start children during the day and their parents after school. And a program in Kansas City, Mo., got a $1 million grant from a major foundation to provide training and assistance to any preschool in the area who wanted to learn from Head Start.
Has the project - which has served more than 11 million children - worked? Jean Larrabee, special-education teacher at Samuel Mason elementary school in Roxbury, Mass., says the ``graduates'' she gets in kindergarten ``are more socially adept. They can sit, they know when it's listening time, have some concept of colors, and can play with others. It's an awareness that they have that other children not in those programs don't have.''
And Head Start helps identify early on learning problems, she says. ``That allows them to get special education sooner so they're not shoved into regular programs where they might fail. Here they succeed, and get mainstreamed a lot sooner.''
The children get a low teacher-student ratio, a battery of therapists and counselors, free medical and dental care, and hot meals. Teachers make home visits and a whole array of programs exist to help parents with work readiness and parenting skills.
One frequently mentioned study of a private preschool program similar to Head Start in Ypsilanti, Mich., found that those children needed less special education, were less likely to repeat grades or drop out or use drugs, and committed fewer juvenile crimes. And they were more likely to enroll in college. The savings to society, it found, was $6 for every $1 spent.
``We give Head Start an A,'' says Helen Blank, senior child-care associate at the Children's Defense Fund, in Washington, D.C. ``It really responds in a comprehensive manner to meet the needs of underprivileged children and their families. Its comprehensive view is the best formula for reaching low-income children.''
Conservatives are not happy with all aspects of the program. Kate Walsh O'Beirne, vice president of government relations of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, points out that the Ypsilanti study looked at only 58 children, and they weren't in Head Start. She cites another study which synthesized 210 Head Start programs over 20 years and involved millions of children. That one found that these children tested better than their counterparts immediately after leaving the program, but that those gains did not hold up after 18 to 24 months.
``We all want it to work,'' says Ms. O'Beirne, ``but it's not a magic bullet. We shouldn't kid ourselves that it has long-term results, because frankly it doesn't.''
Her organization, she says, would like to see Head Start remain a poverty program serving the children's nutritional and medical needs, but not educational. O'Beirne adds, however, that many conservatives find it politically unacceptable to constructively criticize the program that is so highly praised.
Head Start officials say the program, which has the children for only one or two years, should not be blamed for what happens to them in public schools where they face larger classes, less personalized attention, and lack the support given in Head Start.
``One of the things we've learned is it's no quick fix,'' says Don Bolce, director of information services for the National Head Start Association, a membership association. ``Head Start cannot inoculate kids against the effects of poverty and underfunded public education. It's unrealistic to expect dramatic gains to be sustained forever.'' He says the goal of the original legislation was not increased test scores but improved social competence.
Dr. Wade Horn, commissioner for the federal Administration of Children, Youth, and Families, which runs Head Start, says his department is working with the education department on transition efforts with schools. ``We need to find better models so that the gains aren't lost.''
Mary Russo, principal of Samuel Mason school, agrees. ``It would be helpful if there were better communication between the Head Start programs and the schools to which the children are sent. Now there's never an opportunity for Head Start teachers to sit with our teacher and talk about the children.''
Cost is another factor that bothers conservatives. Head Start's initial budget of $96 million for the six-week summer program has grown to $1.386 billion. It is considered a fairly low-cost social program, but the sheer numbers of children make the dollars add up. There are 100,000 more children enrolled now than 10 years ago, and some estimates have Head Start reaching only one in five of those eligible. Head Start officials say the project can reach 80 percent if it becomes a one-year program for four-year-olds. But Bolce contends that to meet the needs of the three- to five-year olds that the legislation calls for will require greater funds. According to unofficial figures by the Congressional Budget Office, projected cost of serving that group of children for 1991 is $7.2 billion.
Second of two articles. The first article ran March 28.