Honing the Head Start Program

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Before leaving on his 5-nation African trip, President Bush visited Highland Park Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Maryland to highlight an exemplary Head Start program. Calling the program one “that’s working,” the President described the CIRCLE strategy utilized at the Highland Park school, a Center for Improving Readiness for Children, Learning and Education. CIRCLE stresses reading readiness alongside the traditional emphases of nutrition and health care. To illustrate the dual focus of his honing of the Head Start program, the President had two cabinet secretaries at the ceremony Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services and Rod Paige, Secretary of Education.

In addition, I was privileged to be among those invited to the ceremony along with the Governor of Maryland, Bob Ehrlich, Congressman, John Boehner, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, Nancy Grasmick, the program director of Head Start, Guylaine Richard, and Assistant Secretary for Children, Youth and Families, Wade Horn.

The Head Start initiative is part of the President’s “Leave No Child Behind” effort. The President made it clear that he wanted the one million children who are in the Head Start program to succeed and not remain “at-risk” for not learning to read. “You see, we’re not going to just spend money and hope something positive happens. We’re going to spend money and see results,” said the President.

Certainly, accountability is needed if the Head Start program is to produce excellent results. Studies show that after investing billions of dollars in 38 years of Head Start programs, poor children are still being left behind. The program, while helping its children compete with other poor children, is not achieving its purpose of preparing poor children to compete on a level field with children from affluent families. The President recommends “addressing the problem” by diminishing the federal role in running Head Start centers in lieu of letting States assume more responsibility and authority for managing the program and shaping the curriculum including awarding grants and choosing the organizations that actually administer the centers.

In his remarks on Monday, the President stressed that federal money in Block Grants earmarked for Head Start programs could not be used for other purposes a response to those critics who claimed States would channel federal Head Start monies into other projects. He addressed the concern that pre-school children would be given standardized academic tests by saying that simple concepts can be taught such as words going left to right and certain letters convey certain sounds. He also supported the developmental and nurturing goals that have been characteristic of Head Start programs since its inception.

When he reiterated his theme of eliminating “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” there were sounds of approval in the audience of educators and early childhood advocates. He talked about teaching being a “noble profession” and reading being the “key to all learning.” He also talked about early childhood education from a research, scientific standpoint and introduced representatives from the National Research Council, the National Institutions of Child Health who have studied how the brain works and how children learn. They believe that “preschoolers can learn much more than we ever thought possible about words and sounds” and that “kids love to learn.” Their research, importantly, also notes “if children do not develop these skills before they reach kindergarten, they will struggle to achieve success in their lives.”

Last year, the Bush Administration launched the Strategic Education Program (STEP) to train 3300 Head Start teachers and supervisors in the CIRCLE program. The President stated that he wants every child to learn. “We’re going to have high standards. We’re going to trust the local people to develop the curriculum, but in return for federal money, we want [accountability. We want] you to measure to tell us whether or not children are learning to read and write . . . [We want every child to have] the tools necessary to be at the starting line at the same time.”


Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse was a United States delegate to the United Nations Children’s Summit in 2002. She is author of the Beverly LaHaye Institute’s report on trends affecting America’s children, “Innocents at Risk,” to be released this Fall.

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