A Head Start is Eluding Many

Posted on January 03, 2003 | Type: In the News
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Waiting lists are often long for the preschool program.

Angel Lozano is still waiting.

More than a year ago, Angel's parents tried to sign her up for Head Start. But the federally funded preschool program in their North Highlands neighborhood was already full.

Angel was put on a waiting list -- one she'll likely never get off. Kindergarten starts in September.

"It's really frustrating my daughter wasn't able to get into this program and get anything out of it," said her father, Gabriel Lozano, 31. "... I'd like her to play with the other kids while she's younger. She seems to be getting a little bit more shy now."

The father of the 4-year-old is sharing his frustration with the parents of thousands of other poor children in the United States this year. Even though they are eligible for the preschool program that has been acclaimed for preparing low-income kids for elementary school, there's not enough money in the federal budget to get them all into Head Start.

As it stands, only 60 percent of the children who qualify for a seat in a Head Start classroom are provided one. The disparity is even more pronounced in California and Sacramento. Statewide, 46 percent of Head Start eligibles are enrolled in the program, and the figure is only 26 percent in Sacramento -- with potentially dire consequences for those who are left out.

"It really sets them back," said Norma Johnson, the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency's deputy director in charge of children and family services and the top administrator of the county's Head Start programs. "Having some pre-literacy skills, being exposed to books and numbers and colors, knowing how to share, knowing how to get along with other children -- it's important to have these skills prior to kindergarten, and it's unfortunate that they're not getting them."

The federal government is spending $6.5 billion on Head Start this year, but the program is still leaving behind more than 600,000 eligible kids across the country, including 120,000 in California and about 15,000 in Sacramento County, officials said.

"This program is way underfunded," said Sacramento County Supervisor Illa Collin, a SETA board member and strong Head Start supporter. "Congress loves it, all the presidents have loved it -- and they underfund it to unbelievable proportions."

One Head Start advocate attributes the lower enrollment numbers in California and Sacramento to the relatively higher percentages of non-English speaking immigrant families living in the state and county.

Ed Condon, the executive director of the California Head Start Association, a private organization representing program providers, says that agencies have tried to reach out to the eligible families but that their enrollment has not kept up with their growth.

"In California, the biggest driver for Head Start services is immigration," Condon said. "That's where the largest growth is."

Condon said the immigrants' language barriers have kept them in lower-paying jobs, while their birth rates are producing higher numbers of preschool-age children. In addition, their transiency has impeded Head Start enrollment efforts, he said.

Windy Hill, the associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the program saw its budget climb 40 percent between 1999 and 2001, and the Bush administration has put in for another $130 million increase over the next fiscal year.

"Our goal is to make the best use of the dollars we have available, to serve children and families that have the greatest need," Hill said.

Despite the number of eligible children who are not enrolled in Head Start, Hill said it would be a mistake to assume that all of their parents want them in the program. She said there are Head Start programs all over the country that are underenrolled, largely as a result of state-funded preschool programs that serve similar populations.

Head Start is a preschool child development program for children under age 5 coming from families with incomes below the poverty level, which amounts to $18,100 a year for a family of four. The program is designed to provide literacy and social skills to poor kids by the time they reach kindergarten.

Founded in 1965 as a hallmark of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," Head Start has seen its funding skyrocket under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. Spending on the program has grown to $6.5 billion from an initial budget of $95 million. The program more than doubled in the eight years of the Clinton administration, and it grew by another $1.3 billion during its first two years under President George W. Bush.

Since the program's inception, the federal government has spent nearly $60 billion putting 20.3 million children through Head Start.

Head Start advocacy organizations such as Fight Crime: Invest in Kids hail the program as having improved self-esteem, social behavior and the cognitive abilities of incoming kindergarten students. The Washington, D.C., organization, which is made up of police chiefs, county sheriffs, local prosecutors and victims' rights groups, quote studies that say Head Start kids are 70 percent less likely to be arrested for a violent crime by the age of 18 than poor children who don't receive the same preschool access.

The organization's executive director, Sanford Newman, called for doubling the Head Start budget to make it available to all eligible children as well as families with earnings a few thousand dollars above the federal poverty levels.

"The first thing we have to realize is, these investments don't cost money, they save money," Newman said. "... It results in fewer placements in remedial education and special education. Fewer kids are held back in grade, and ultimately, it saves lots in crime costs."

Head Start, however, has come under criticism from some public policy analysts who question whether it has been effective at all in preparing kids for school. Darcy Ann Olsen, president and chief executive officer of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, a research organization that advocates a conservative philosophy of limited government and individual responsibility, has argued for years that there is no statistical evidence to support the idea that Head Start kids perform any better in elementary school than poor children who weren't enrolled.

"Child care and child rearing is a parental and family responsibility," Olsen said. "Parents have the right and the responsibility to select their own arrangements, and if there is a price for those arrangements, to pay for them. People with means should pay for their own kids. If you're not going to pay for your own kids, or you don't have the means, who is supposed to pay for them? There are families that need assistance, but it's far better for them to get it through family and neighborhood programs like the YMCA or church and community centers that are privately funded."

Although Olsen and other Head Start critics question how well the program is working, the Bush administration's Hill said the "research supports" the contention that the nutrition and social aspects of Head Start have helped narrow the elementary school readiness gap between children from low-income and more affluent families. She said more studies need to be done to determine Head Start's effectiveness on children's cognitive skills.

Gabriel Lozano, meanwhile, is convinced that Head Start works just fine. He said his older daughter, Monica, 11, attended Head Start when she was younger. He said Head Start prepared Monica "beautifully" for the beginning of elementary school, adding that the sixth-grader has performed admirably in elementary school.

"It was an awesome program," said the unemployed Lozano, who, along with his two daughters, lives at his girlfriend's mother's house on $319 in welfare payments and $176 in food stamps each month. "She had nutrition, snacks and everything. It really helped her out a lot, socializing with the other kids."

With no other children his younger daughter's age in his North Highlands neighborhood, Lozano thinks Angel might have some interaction problems if she can't get into Head Start soon. He is not optimistic about her chances.

"She's getting ready to start regular school next year," Lozano said, "so there's not going to be a Head Start for her."

About the Writer: The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or afurillo@sacbee.com.

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