HEAD Start needs a jump start.
Perhaps the most widely lauded program of President Johnson's Great Society, Head Start was aimed at preparing pre-schoolers in disadvantaged families to enter the early grades on equal, or near-equal, terms with their more fortunate classmates.
In its early years, people who visited Head Start classrooms were impressed by its goals, the enthusiasm of pupils and volunteer workers, and the professional staff. Kids who might have entered first grade already far behind their classmates were instead getting a break. More than 27 years later, Head Start has not retained the momentum and clarity of mission of its earlier years. Many of the the 1,300 centers in the US, attended by some 700,000 children, are not enjoying the success envisioned. Updating
of goals and methods, better staffing, and realistic funding are needed.
Among the program's admirers are President Clinton and former President Bush. Mr. Bush wanted to raise annual Head Start funding by $1 billion a year for four years; current funding is at $2.8 billion a year. Mr. Clinton has announced plans to increase Head Start funding by $10 billion over the next four years.
Although recognizing that it put many children on the right track for first grade, knowledgeable critics caution that Head Start's success has been at best modest. They urge that shortcomings be examined and remedied before the level of funding is increased. Yale University Prof. Edward Zigler, one of the originators of Head Start, says that at present probably one-half of Head Start programs are of high quality, one-fourth are marginal, and the remaining fourth should be shut down.
Besides the housing, materials, and qualified personnel to run Head Start programs successfully, much greater financial support is needed. The program should be thoroughly reassessed with an eye to making every dollar count toward preparing children for entry into the early grades.