Memo From Mac



The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Burlington, Iowa

Head Starters Stay In the Lead 

I answered the doorbell to find a pretty young woman on the porch. "Oh, I must have the wrong house," she said, obviously not expecting a gray-bearded old man. I asked if I could help. "I'm looking for an old teacher of mine," the young woman said. "I thought she lived here."

"Sorry," I said, "there are no old teachers " Then I caught myself.

"Peggy," I hollered into the kitchen. "I think there is someone here to see you." I was confused because my wife teaches pre-schoolers, not pretty young women.

But then, as I watched their delighted reunion, I realized that I'd just forgotten how long it is that Peggy has been at it.

The young woman who had come calling was a Head Start pupil from one of her early classes one of her shining successes someone who'd climbed the mountain, from poverty, from what the experts call being "educationally disadvantaged."

I saw the sparkle in Peggy's eyes and I realized, I guess for the first time fully, why she'd stuck to it for 15 years, why she persisted, despite all the weariness, and exasperation and frustration.

A report has just been issued by a Michigan Foundation, based on a 20-year study of children who've been exposed to Head Start or similar pre-school programs, compared to a control group that followed the normal school path.

Nearly twice as many in the pre-school group have gone to work or to college or to post-high school vocational training as in the other group. Some 20 percent fewer have dropped out of school or been in trouble with the law.

The Head Starters have required far less remedial work in elementary and high school and have caused their regular schoolteachers far less trouble.

Well, we didn't need the report to tell us Head Start is considered a success. It's so popular that it has survived most Reagan administration cuts of social programs to find money for the military and the tax cuts.

Even so, Head Start isn't out of danger. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $1.075 billion for the program for fiscal 1985, but with the adjournment fast approaching, neither house has acted on the measure. Unless they do before October 1, the program will face operating under a continuing resolution.

No new study was necessary to sell the importance of Head Start in our home. The garage, it seems, is always half full of toys, furniture, plastic buckets, oatmeal containers anything she could scrounge anywhere that she thought might be useful in teaching.

Her "home visits" have given her an intimate acquaintance with the community's various sub-cultures that an old police reporter can only envy. Her grown sons used to blush at the dinner table when she reported the newest additions to her vocabulary, contributed by her four-year-olds.

For all the lip service it gets these days, Head Start is still a community orphan, a kind of educational second-class citizen. The federal funds have never been sufficient to take it out of the begging class. It has no permanent home in the community, but moved around to wherever there's empty space in some public building. When this has been lacking, it has relied on church generosity.

It relies heavily on volunteers and its regular teachers earn somewhere between a third and a half what public school teachers are paid.

Since the days when Sargent Shriver just sort of ran it out of his hip pocket as part of the Great Society, it has, like all government programs, become top heavy with bureaucracy when what it needs is more teachers in more classrooms, reaching more youngsters and their parents with more personal intensity.

And if the local public school systems were doing all they should for all the people, there wouldn't be any place for Head Start.

But there is. And the young woman on the porch the other night was happy proof of its rewards.

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