NOW EVERYONE LOVES HEAD START The preschool program is cheap, effective, and due for major expansion. The money should be used to raise teachers' salaries, not just student enrollment.
By Ronald Henkoff REPORTER ASSOCIATE Temma Ehrenfeld

(FORTUNE Magazine) – SUDDENLY Head Start is on nearly everybody's agenda. Calling the $1.4 billion federal preschool program ''something near and dear to all of us,'' President Bush proposes to spend an additional $500 million on it next year. That increase, by far the largest in Head Start's 25-year history, would create places for another 180,000 children, raising nationwide enrollment to 670,000. In Congress the House child care bill, passed in March, earmarks $100 million more. Leading Democrats in both houses are sponsoring legislation that would swell the program's budget to $7.7 billion by 1994. The goal: to ensure a slot for every income-eligible child between ages 3 and 5, some 2.5 million kids in all. Business leaders, too, are calling for a bigger and better Head Start. ''We must intervene as early as possible in the lives of disadvantaged children, in order to prevent failure before it happens,'' says James Renier, CEO of Honeywell. Other champions of expansion include the National Governors' Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the business- led Committee for Economic Development. Wade Horn, who supervises the program as commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, is overjoyed: ''It's just a terrific time for Head Start. All these forces are coming together and saying, 'This is a program that works.' '' A survivor of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start has become that rarest of rare birds, a government education initiative that is cheap, lean, and thick with success stories. Horn's agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, employs only 225 bureaucrats to oversee Head Start. It spends $2,885 per child per year for a half day, slightly more than half what elementary and secondary schools spend for a full day. But the preschool classes have two teachers for every 20 students, vs. one teacher for 25 on average in public schools. Head Start also provides more services. Study after study demonstrates that Head Start by and large does what it was designed to do. The program is not an all-purpose antitoxin for the multiple afflictions of modern-day poverty. But it does enable most participants to enter kindergarten better prepared intellectually, emotionally, and socially than their non-preschool peers. Head Start typically introduces kids to such educational basics as the alphabet and gives them the opportunity to socialize and develop motor skills. But it works because its definition of education extends well beyond counting and coloring, singing and sharing. The program provides pupils with nutritionally sound meals, comprehensive medical and dental exams, critical childhood inoculations, and individual psychological counseling. It also offers a mainstream classroom experience to some 60,000 handicapped children. There is no fixed curriculum. Federal regulations set broad goals, such as ''encouraging children to explore, experiment, and question.'' The 1,300 local programs -- operated by city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and public school systems -- decide exactly what takes place in the classroom. The programs must answer to policy councils made up of parents and other members of the community. Head Start also provides a kick start for parents. The program has hired thousands as assistant teachers and inspires countless others to return to school and seek new careers. It can become a pivotal point in the lives of entire families. When Marlene Holloway, now 29, moved to Minneapolis from Gary, Indiana, four years ago, she was an isolated and unemployed mother of five, married to an abusive, alcoholic husband. Her son, Melvin, now 6, was so shy that he used to run upstairs whenever visitors came to the house. ''Head Start brought Melvin out of his shell,'' says Holloway. It did the same for her. First she volunteered as a bus attendant, then as a classroom assistant. Now she chairs the local Head Start Policy Council. Tall, slender, and visibly self-confident, Holloway has separated from her husband. She is also enrolled in a state-funded court-reporting course at the Minnesota School of Business, where she has posted a 3.5 grade point average. Says she: ''Before I got involved in Head Start, my life was going haywire. Now I'm going to get myself off welfare and support my family.'' AMID ALL the euphoria over Head Start, however, there is a real danger that the program, which serves only 18% of today's income-eligible children, will be expanded too quickly. The freshet of money proposed by the President would be used exclusively to increase enrollment. Complains Yale psychology professor Edward Zigler, a founder of Head Start: ''The emphasis seems to be on getting those numbers of children up, without worrying about quality control.'' The National Head Start Association, which represents the local programs, thinks new funding should be used first to boost meager teacher salaries and to make up for an erosion of 46% in real spending on training and technical assistance since 1978. Some 47% of Head Start instructors earned $10,000 or less in 1988, and many have no health insurance or pension plans. Many staffers defect to state-run early-childhood programs, which tend to pay more. Commissioner Horn, who holds a doctorate in child psychology, acknowledges that salaries are low. But he worries that raising them too much could jeopardize the program's role as an employer of parents. Nearly 29,000 of Head Start employees, some 36% of the entire work force, have children currently or previously enrolled in the program. Make the pay too attractive, says Horn, and these parents will be crowded out by eager, college-educated applicants. As Head Start becomes larger and more visible, it runs the risk of tripping over the great expectations of ardent supporters who believe it can head off juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, incarceration, and a host of other social ills. ''If we ever hope to control rising taxes, preschool education is the way to go,'' asserts David Weikart, president of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan. ''But it is only part of the solution.'' High/Scope has tracked the performance of 123 children in five successive classes of poor, black students in Ypsilanti's Perry Preschool during the 1960s, comparing their lives from childhood to young adulthood with those of non-preschool control groups. The foundation's most striking conclusion: One public dollar spent on preschool can generate as much as six dollars in accumulated social benefits, chiefly by reducing expenditures on public assistance and criminal justice. HIGH/SCOPE'S STUDIES have been extraordinarily influential in mustering political support for Head Start. ''Perry Preschool is the most important piece of research in education since the Coleman Report,'' declares Senator Edward Kennedy's top education aide, making a comparison to the landmark 1966 study of school segregation. Often lost in the debate, however, is the fact that Perry was not a Head Start program at all, but a special preschool directed by child psychologists and staffed by well-trained teachers. Nationwide, hundreds of Head Start programs have adopted, or emulated, the High/Scope curriculum, a program based on the premise that children learn best when they are given a chance to plan, pursue, and then recount their own activities. But whatever the merits of the High/Scope approach, it is important to remember that social conditions have changed radically since the kids who were studied went to school. Many poor children now inhabit a world of substandard housing, drug addiction, child neglect, and domestic violence. ''The problems that poor kids face are bigger than Head Start can deal with,'' asserts Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ''Kids who have to step over hypodermic needles on their way to the classroom aren't going to get to college because of 3 1/2 hours of play school.'' Perhaps not. But Head Start does have an impact that goes beyond preparing children for kindergarten. In 1985, CSR Inc., a Washington consulting firm hired by the government, published an analysis of 210 follow-up studies of Head Start participants. Their conclusions: Head Start graduates score higher on cognitive tests and are less likely than their non-Head Start peers to be held back in grade (a well-known early indicator of school failure) or placed in special education classes. CSR also found that Head Start grads tend to lose their edge in cognitive testing after the first grade. To combat this problem, which Head Start officials euphemistically call the transition issue, Commissioner Horn is working with the Department of Education to develop follow-up programs -- perhaps in the form of individual counseling -- for Head Start graduates. But the leveling-down may be less the fault of the program than an indictment of America's public school systems. Both Head Start and the schools should pay more attention to the role played by parents. Children whose parents were highly involved in Head Start do consistently better on cognitive tests, the CSR study found. Says Zigler of Yale: ''What causes the long-term benefits is really the parents. They tell their children that school is important. They encourage success.'' Good Head Start centers make herculean efforts to get parents involved. They urge them to volunteer in the classroom, to read to their children every day, to sit on policy councils. For many mothers and fathers, the local center becomes a combination clubhouse and support group. Guest speakers offer them seminars on diverse topics -- nutrition, substance abuse, household budgeting, assertiveness training, and resume-writing. And Head Start's resident family services worker often acts as a personal Theseus, guiding baffled parents through the labyrinthine world of government services -- welfare, public housing, health care, drug counseling, and family courts. Jeffrey (not his real name), a blond, lanky 5-year-old, suffered physical and mental abuse at the Arizona home of his mother and her boyfriend. Jeffrey's baby brother was so severely injured that doctors gave him only a 50% chance of survival and virtually no chance of ever walking or talking. Today, both boys are in the custody of their father, and Jeffrey is enrolled in Head Start. ''Jeff has progressed three years in the last year and a half,'' says the father, an auto mechanic. ''And he's helped me teach his brother.'' Now 2 1/2, the younger boy has learned to run, count, and smile. Many Head Start directors think the family outreach aspects of the program need to be strengthened. ''A lot of these families are in a big hole that they just can't get out of,'' says Mary Ann Perez, director of the 100-student Cartwright Head Start program in Phoenix. In just the past few months, Perez has dealt with child abuse, attempted suicide, homicide, drug addiction, wife beating, and accidental drowning. The caseworker who counsels at Cartwright has to handle 180 families. The betting in Washington is that Congress and the President will agree on an infusion of from $500 million to $1 billion for next year. Head Start deserves the money, but spending it efficiently will require care -- even a well-run private corporation can get into trouble when it tries to expand too rapidly. Some of the funds should go to higher teacher salaries and benefits, more training and inspection, and lightening social worker caseloads. Congress should also be careful about calling for more full-day and full-year classes. They make sense up to a point, but if Head Start becomes just a glorified baby-sitting program for low-income parents, it could lose its educational focus. Business can also play a larger role, and not just by speaking up for Head Start -- although that certainly helps. In Minneapolis leading employers routinely donate money, toys, clothes, food, and playground equipment to Parents in Community Action (PICA), a countywide Head Start program serving 872 children. In Dallas, Texas Instruments has pledged $288,000 to help fund a new full-day, full-year program, which the company hopes will become a nationwide showcase for preschool education. Robert Neal Jr. runs the full-day Head Start class at Dunbar Manor, one of Dayton, Ohio's most troubled public housing projects. Formerly a professional pop singer, the stocky and goateed Neal is nattily attired in a pink shirt, vest, dark pants, and cowboy boots. With exquisite patience, he induces a shy girl in cornrows to describe the features of her latest creation, which appears to be nothing more than an amorphous lump of clay. It is, explains the girl proudly, actually a giraffe. Neal, who has been teaching in Head Start for ten years, still receives visits from some of his earliest students. They stop by to thank him. A married father of two and one of Head Start's few male teachers, Neal earns just $14,000 a year, a far cry from the $60,000 a year he sometimes made as a singer. ''I feel like I'm worth more,'' he says, ''but when the kids leave here at the end of the day feeling good about themselves, I know that I've been rewarded.'' With increased funding, judiciously applied, Head Start should be good for another 25 years of little success stories.

BOX: FACT

''General intelligence appears to develop as much from conception to age 4 as it does during the 14 years from age 4 to age 18.'' -- Benjamin Bloom in Stability and Change in Human Characteristics