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Head Start Preschools: Enriching the Lives of New Jersey’s Poorest Kids

But popular pre-K program faces challenges on several fronts, including critical report disputing long-term gains for youngest students

elaine ruhl
Credit: Martin Griff
Elaine Ruhl, executive director of the Center for Family Resources in Ringwood, NJ

Amid the tree-covered hills along New Jersey’s northern border, Elaine Ruhl and her staff run a preschool for poor children. In the classrooms and outdoor play areas, the kids keep busy all day with familiar preschool activities: building with blocks, learning letters and numbers, finger painting, getting dirty in the garden, and playing on slides.

But the facility in Ringwood, one of nine in Passaic County run by the Center for Family Resources, offers much more than a first educational experience. The center gets involved in the lives of its students -- and their families -- in many different ways.

“We work with the parents, we work with the community, we do health, we do dental, we do nutrition. Ours is an all-around family-and-child kind of program -- whereas a school is a school,” said Ruhl, the nonprofit’s executive director.

SMALL pre-k logo

“We have social-service staff, we have health staff, we have a registered dietitian. We have a lot of agreements with other agencies, so if our families need mental-health services or help with rent or any of that, we have resources at our fingertips,” she said. “The philosophy is, the whole family has to be ready for school, not just the child.”

That, said Ruhl, is the difference between a federally funded Head Start program like hers and a regular preschool. For 16,000 children in New Jersey and more than a million across the country, Head Start centers offer learning and socialization to help them overcome the barriers associated with poverty, at the same time that the support staff work to foster family stability.

“We think of it sometimes as a two-generational program,” said Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association and a former state education official under Gov. Jim Florio. “With children whose families’ lives are in turmoil, whether because of joblessness or addiction or family violence or because they're refugees or immigrants, you cannot just take the child and give them so many hours of good experiences. If a child's home life is not stabilized, then the child will not be as well off.”

Ringwood sign
Credit: Martin Griff
The Center for Family Resources in Ringwood, NJ

Many of the Head Starts in New Jersey are also Abbott preschools. Through that program, which provides pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in 35 disadvantaged school districts, the state shares the cost of eligible Head Start centers. The participating centers must also meet the Abbott standards, such as small class sizes and teachers with bachelor degrees and preschool certification.

Head Start has been hugely popular since it was started in 1965, maintaining support from both Republican and Democratic administrations. Its budget has steadily climbed to $8.6 billion, and President Barack Obama wants to add another $1.5 billion so every center can offer full-day care over a full school year in order to boost the benefits.

At the same time, the program faces substantial new challenges. A fiscally conservative Congress may be reluctant to approve the funding hike. A major federal study cast doubt on Head Start’s long-term educational impact. The expansion of good, state-funded preschools in New Jersey and several other states has created an alternate model for public pre-K that has been touted by Head Start skeptics and reform advocates.

Even the Obama administration may be open to taking preschool away from Head Start. Its proposed Preschool for All plan, though a long way from becoming reality, envisions Head Start as a program for infants and toddlers, and would help states run their own preschool systems for low- and middle-income children.

Play, sand, and songs

Like other Head Start providers, the Center for Family Resources (CFR) mostly enrolls children whose families are below the poverty line. Families receiving public assistance, children in foster care, and homeless kids are eligible regardless of income, and up to 10 percent of the children may be from families with incomes above the poverty guidelines. Under certain conditions, centers may also enroll additional children who are at up to 130 percent of the poverty line.

CFR has 347 preschoolers at its nine locations, including over 200 at three program sites in the Clifton public schools, Ruhl said. It also has 141 families in Early Head Start, the program for pregnant women, infants and toddlers, and oversees three small family childcare homes. The agency’s early education budget is $4.2 million, plus limited state subsidies for extended-day care.

None of CFR’s centers are in Abbott districts, but its programs in Clifton are part of a statewide preschool expansion that is bringing centers up to Abbott standards. In addition, all of CFR’s centers use a state-approved curriculum, its teachers have bachelors degrees, and most have or are working on getting preschool certification, Ruhl said.

As at most preschools around the country, much of the learning takes the form of play at differentiated activity centers. On a recent late morning at the Ringwood center, 13 preschoolers sat together in front of teacher Judy Herman and chose their center assignments. After each choice, the child put his or her name card in the corresponding pocket on a board.

“Avery, where are you going to play today?” Herman asked.

“I’m going to ‘play dough’ ,” said Avery, a big-eyed girl with a high side ponytail.

“Ok,” her teacher said, giving her a card. “Put it in the pocket.”

Credit: Martin Griff
Four-year-old Kayla at the Center for Family Resources in Ringwood, NJ

Avery and her classmates Laila and Aubrey went to a table where a box of red “playdough” and tools was set down along with colored trays. They got to work at their trays with little guidance, grabbing dough and borrowing each others’ tools. Leila flattened a chunk with a small rolling pin and started pressing out letter shapes with cookie-cutters. Avery reached into the box for more but came up short.

“Hey, there’s no more,” she said. She turned to Aubrey. “Can I have a piece?”

Aubrey obliged, handing over a blob of the red stuff with barely a glance up. Avery rolled it out and sectioned it with a cutter.

“I’m doing pizza,” she explained. A minute later all three were making tiny pizza wedges.

A teacher turned on a CD of a story being narrated to music, adding to the hubbub in the room. Four kids stood around a sensory table scooping up fine-grained sand with cups and pouring it through strainers. A girl sat at another table looking through a large jar of buttons and an assortment of shiny stones. Herman perched on a tiny overstuffed chair in a reading area next to two children on a miniature couch.

“Should we do a cute song for Miss Elaine?” she asked.

She pulled out a book, “Pete the Cat Saves Christmas,” and put on the accompanying music. In the song, Santa falls ill and Pete vows to take over his duties. “Although I am small, at Christmas we give, so I’ll give it my all,” the narrator read, and launched into the chorus.

“Give it your all!” the whole class sang together. “Give it your all!”

Bringing parents into school

Outdoors, behind the building, another group played in a new “outdoor classroom” that was built recently thanks to the Teaneck-based Taub Foundation and the nonprofit Nature Explore.

Bundled in their coats, the children danced on a low stage next to a wooden marimba and dug in the “messy play” area, with its mud kitchen and assortment of shovels, mixing bowls, and cooking utensils. As lunchtime approached, they lined up and trooped past the building-block area and nature-art area to go back inside, their cheeks smudged with dirt.

“Most of the teachers want the kids outside,” Ruhl said. “They see that it makes a difference in their eating habits, their sleeping habits, their behavioral habits, you know -- to get fresh air and not be stuck inside all the time.”

They also have a container garden where they plant and harvest vegetables and herbs, and a playground with slides and tubes to climb through.

As the children played and learned in their classrooms, administrative staffers were at work upstairs, including a few current and former Head Start parents. Parental engagement is a prominent part of the program’s mandate, through regular home visits by staff, membership on a parent committee and the center’s board, parenting classes, volunteering in the school, and employment.

Credit: Martin Griff
Human Resources Assistant and parent Linibeth Penaranda consults with Family Service Worker Monica Harris at the Center for Family Resources

The staff includes human resources assistant Linibeth Penaranda, a Colombia native and Pompton Lakes resident whose 4-year-old son Lucas Montoya is a CFR preschooler. Two years ago, she said, she lost her job as a store manager in New York as well as her home. She was looking for an alternative to the $1,000-a-month private childcare Lucas was attending and happened to drive by CFR.

After he was enrolled, the teachers noticed that he seemed to be having language problems and had him evaluated, Penaranda said.

“They helped me and my family to become involved with Lucas’s problems, helped to cope with him, to make sure that he develops the language. He was bilingual, so he was kind of getting confused, he was getting frustrated and things like that,” she said. “If I will have him in the regular daycare where I was paying, they probably would not be able to see that.”

Penaranda said her 14-year-old daughter probably had similar problems in preschool, but they had gone undetected at the private daycare she attended. Her daughter is doing well in school now but doesn’t particularly care for books. “Reading is not her forte,” she said.

Soon after Lucas started at Head Start, a teacher mentioned that Penaranda might qualify for the administrative position. The job does not pay well -- her family still qualifies for Head Start, after all -- but she is able to see her son frequently and counts herself lucky, she said.

“People will say, ‘Oh, a Head Start program, that's for poor people,’ and things like that. I think it goes beyond being poor or not, because they really, really dedicate their mission to the children,” she said. “I can see it. I see it with my own child.”

Doubts about Head Start’s impact

Head Start’s generally stellar reputation took a major hit three years ago, when the final phase of a congressionally mandated study of its effectiveness was released.

The study had initially found benefits for children, especially those who entered at age 3, compared to non-Head Start kids. At the end of preschool they were doing better on measures of vocabulary, spelling, literacy, math, certain child and parent behaviors, and health status, among others. But the benefits weakened by the end of kindergarten, and the follow-up study released in 2012 found they had disappeared by the time the children finished third grade.

Junior eating (carousel and story)
Credit: Martin Griff
Two year old Junior at the Center for Family Resources in Ringwood, NJ

The findings were seized upon by critics of the program. “The federal government’s 48-year experiment with Head Start has failed children and left taxpayers a tab of more than $180 billion,” the Heritage Foundation concluded. “In the interest of children and taxpayers, it’s time for this nearly half-century experiment to come to an end.”

Education policy debates often center on the quality of studies, with dueling academics using technical arguments to undermine or defend data. A number of experts say the impact study was unusually strong because it compared Head Start kids to other children who applied to Head Start but were randomly denied admission. Preschool studies are often considered weaker because there may be more differences between the included and excluded children, rendering conclusions about the schools’ effects unreliable.

“The Head Start impact study is the best we have, and it's really good,” said Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution fellow and former federal education official who favors giving poor families preschool vouchers. “It means that compared to what else is available now, Head Start doesn't seem to be adding any value. It's not that it's doing worse than what else is available, but it's not doing any better.”

Head Start’s defenders argue that the study was flawed in part because of the “crossover” effect. A number of the control group kids -- those who didn’t get into Head Start -- simply found different Head Start programs and attended those instead. Vinci said that invalidates the comparison and contended the study has been “debunked”; Whitehurst, meanwhile, said crossover is a standard occurrence in studies and the researchers accounted for it in their analysis.

Four year olds Grace and Halia at the Center for Family  esources
Credit: Martin Griff
Four-year-olds Grace and Halia at the Center for Family Resources

Another academic, Edward Zigler of Yale University, said the statistical procedures the researchers used to handle crossovers were unsatisfactory. Zigler, who supports a more expansive and better-funded program, also argued that the study attempts to measure Head Start against goals it has never aimed to achieve.

“Over the years scientists, policymakers, and the public have developed unreasonable expectations that Head Start should raise IQ scores, lift children and families out of poverty, and close the achievement gap between poor and more affluent children,” Zigler wrote. “Congress tried to quell this practice in 1998 by mandating the singular goal of improved school readiness. Measured against this outcome, Head Start is certainly a success.”

Education experts point to a body of research that suggests the program does have positive effects. “Studies with older data, using less airtight but widely accepted methods, found that Head Start graduates were better off even into their twenties,” two researchers wrote in a Brookings Institution paper said. But even they agree Head Start could be better.

Improvement, or replacement?

The research has fed a debate over Head Start’s future. Some conservative legislators criticize Head Start and Obama’s universal preschool plan as a “government-run, one-size-fits-all programs,” and propose transferring Head Start’s budgets to states, which could use the money for private preschool vouchers.

jennifer salt
Credit: Martin Griff
Four-year-old Kaitlyn and Nutrition Manager/Registered Dietitian Jennifer Salt at the Center for Family Resources

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), who has since become Speaker of the House, said in a congressional report that Head Start was “failing to prepare children for school.”

Others, however, say Head Start doesn’t look as strong as it once did because there are now many high-quality preschool programs, such as the state preschools in New Jersey and Oklahoma. “Evaluations suggest that strong state preschool programs sustain gains in reading, math, or both in ways that Head Start doesn’t,” Robert Gordon and Sara Mead write in the Brookings paper. They note that some Head Start centers produce much better outcomes than others, and say that improving the laggards could provide “a big boost for our nation’s poorest youngsters.”

In an effort to spur improvements, in 2007 Congress required Head Starts to undergo quality reviews and made underperforming centers compete for funding. The Obama administration has “aggressively implemented” the system, according to Gordon and Mead. But Whitehurst said the program was unable to attract new and potentially better childcare providers, leading the administration to consider alternate strategies.

One has been to propose new Head Start program standards, which are currently under review. The biggest change would require centers to provide at least 6 hours of instruction a day for 180 days a year, rather the current minimum of 3.5 hours and 128 days. Full-day preschool has been shown to benefit children more than half-day. However, the change would cost $1 billion, requiring either new money from Congress or a reduction in the number of children in Head Start.

The proposal would also address attendance and absenteeism problems, limit suspensions, allow centers flexibility in designing their programs, and trim the program’s massive rule book, which has more than 2,000 standards. Ruhl listed some of the areas she has to keep track of: governance, program management, planning, nutrition, health, social services, education, Early Head Start, and non-federal funding share, each with its own sets of requirements and procedures.

“It is hard to keep up with everything, and it changes, because Head Start changes their focus,” she said. “There are a lot of rules, but I think that’s what makes us so good.”

Another strategy may also be in the works. Whitehurst notes that Obama’s universal pre-K proposal conspicuously does not mention Head Start preschools. Though the details are not completely spelled out, it appears the states would get money to help fund pre-K programs at public schools and private providers, and Head Start would focus entirely on younger children.

Credit: Martin Griff
Four-year-old Dezarae and Lucas with teacher’s assistant Alexis Mann at the Center for Family Resources

“The president’s plan will maintain and build on current Head Start investments, to support a greater share of infants, toddlers, and three-year olds in America’s Head Start centers, while state preschool settings will serve a greater share of four-year olds,” the administration said.

Whitehurst said the Preschool for All plan came out of the failure of the previous effort to introduce competition.

“I talk with people in the administration. I know what they're thinking about these things. The administration is not a fan of Head Start,” he said. “The administration clearly prefers as a matter of policy that states be providing the pre-K programs, as they're doing in Abbott, rather than kids going to Head Start.”

Vinci dismissed Whitehurst’s comments -- as well as his support of vouchers -- saying she has a better sense of the administration’s goals.

“The White House education advisers have all said to me, we need Head Start to lead the way,” she said. “Head Start is the only system that has been around, and by system I mean it has the programs, it has standards, it has monitoring, it has professional development and parent engagement. If states try to build systems of universal pre-K, Head Start has a lot to teach them. That’s what I’m hearing from the White House.”

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