HEAD START EXPANSION Key to Achievement of Universal Pre-K in Biden Administration American Families Plan

June 4, 2021

Susan Kooperstein

Lee Phenner

America’s proven gold standard early education program brings racial equity, economic opportunity to all of America’s families

In Boston and across America, the community-based federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve as models for providing high quality early education and care set solidly in a racial-social equity framework that puts pre-schoolers (including infants and toddlers) from low-income families on the pathway to success in school and life.

Now, as families and early education providers applaud the Biden administration’s commitment to providing free, high quality pre-kindergarten services to all of our nation’s children, ABCD and the national Head Start community call for significant expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start as key elements in fulfilling this much-needed national goal. Head Start, as a model for pre-kindergarten education and care for ALL children and families, should be on the national agenda in this time that calls for economic and racial equity.

For almost 60 years, Head Start has undergone intensive federal, state and community scrutiny that led to important alterations to meet the changing needs of children and families of every race and culture, children in foster care, children who are homeless, children of migrant workers, children whose parents suffer drug addiction and mental health challenges, every child of low-income parents who needs a Head Start.

Head Start parent speaks out
Zainab Hmito, a Head Start parent in Everett, Mass., spoke about the program in a recent interview. Head Start means everything to our family,” said Hmito, whose two children, ages 2 and 5,  are in ABCD Early Head Start and Head Start.  Hmito is a member of the ABCD Head Start Parent Policy Council and represents ABCD Head Start on the ABCD Board of Directors.

“My older child will go to kindergarten in the fall and she is so ready for that experience,” said Hmito. “Her abilities were showcased in kindergarten interviews – reading, math, sociability, comfort with adults and children – she was just a star! And Head Start played a key role in those achievements.”

She pointed out that participation as a Head Start parent has given her a “professional eye” for assessing her children’s educational, health and social needs. “We learn about child development, we are empowered to ensure that schools meet our children’s needs, we are there as informed advocates for our children.”

Hmito also emphasized that in Head Start, diversity is front and center, with parents of all races and backgronds focused on common goals. “We feel we are part of a team working together for our children and community. It’s a powerful and enriching feeling to understand that we are all in this together.”

Head Start has improved the lives of more than 37 million American children and their families, preparing them for success in school and life and lifting millions out of poverty. The program is built upon a solid base that provides for intensive parent engagement and comprehensive

services including education, health, dental, nutrition and family services. Parents are leaders in decision-making processes, advising Head Start policy, guiding programs, volunteering in  classrooms and advocating for the needs of their children. Head Start parents have access to  educational and career opportunities provided through the program and its partners and supporters.

Early Head Start has been nationally recognized as critically important with research showing that 80 percent of brain development takes place before age 3 and parents need comprehensive support during these early parenting years.

What about Head Start critics who say that children’s academic gains disappear by 3rd grade? Recent research has debunked that myth. A cutting-edge 20-year study reported recently in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal shows that quality pre-school helps children become successful adults. The gains are lifetime and cumulative.

Although lasting increases in school test results don’t prevail, that may be the fault of public education. The study shows that children who went to preschool were more likely to graduate from high school, take SAT tests and go to college. They were less likely to be suspended or incarcerated. They were seen by researchers as more robust and resilient and better able to deal with the twists and turns of life.

Head Start a model to serve all children
John J. Drew, President/CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, which provides Head Start and Early Head Start services to more than 3,000 low-income children and their families in Boston, Malden and Everett, said that Head Start expansion can move beyond serving the nation’s low-income children to being the high quality early education and care model for ALL children in America.

“In many communities we have affluent parents who want to pay for their children to attend Head Start because the quality of education and care are so much higher than other available early education programs,” he said. “Head Start can make a difference for all our children.”

Don’t reinvent the wheel
Drew noted that Head Start has all the elements in place to serve as an outstanding model for the Biden administration’s much-needed plan to provide universal pre-kindergarten programs to all children, including families at every income level and of every race and nationality.

“Head Start is synonymous with high-quality early education and care,” he said. “No program has been reviewed and scrutinized like this one. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.”

Drew noted that nationwide only 40 percent of eligible low-income 3-5-year-old children are currently in Head Start and only 11 percent are involved in the highly applauded Early Head Start program.

“If the American Families Plan means we can reach 100 percent enrollment in these critical programs, hundreds of thousands of children and families will get the head start in life that they so desperately need,” he said.

Drew also pointed out that his own children attended Head Start in its early days when his family was going through a bad economic patch. “It turned our lives around,” he said. “From day one Head Start has been a beacon of light for struggling families.

Intensive evaluations of Head Start consistently show positive outcomes in vocabulary and cognitive skills, parent involvement, high school graduation rates, college enrollment and completion, and self-control. Head Start children are less likely to be chronically absent or held back a grade. There are also positive impacts on health. As adults, people who attended Head Start have greater lifetime earnings and go on to live healthier lives.

About ABCD Head Start
ABCD’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs help more than 3,000 young children annually prepare for success in school and life by providing high-quality early education. Head Start serves 3-5-year-olds at 21 Boston, Malden and Everett sites; Early Head Start programs at 12 sites support infants, toddlers and three sites support pregnant mothers. ABCD also provides full-day, full-year services to parents to allow them to work or go to school. As a partner in the Massachusetts pre-K expansion, it serves a total of 120 children. Learn more at bostonabcd.org/head-start.