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Planting the seed for success: a 'Head Start' for children in poverty

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Head Start, a federal government program, was created in the 1960s and is focused on early education for families in poverty. Credit: Mindy Gerecke via Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Laura Friedman hit a rough patch when she ended a long-term relationship and lost her job a few years back. She had moved in with a friend and her 4-year-old son had developed some challenging behaviors.

“I was overwhelmed and did not know who to turn to for help.”

That’s when she learned about Madison’s Head Start program, a child care program and much more, that is offered free of charge to low-income families. She enrolled her son within a week, and he began receiving speech and language services almost immediately.

“As my son’s communication skills improved, so did everything else,” Friedman says.

She enjoyed connecting with other parents who wanted to improve their own and their children’s lives. The more involved she became, the more Head Start was turning into much more than a child care provider.

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For Laura Friedman, Madison’s Head Start program began as an early-childhood education site for her 4-year-old son and soon turned into a support community and ultimately an employer that allowed her to pursue new career goals for herself. Contributed photo, Dane County Parent Council

When she was offered a position as a special needs aide about a year after she had enrolled her son, Friedman happily accepted. “I felt validated, supported and things were finally looking up,” she says. “I love what we do as an agency, and hope that I can provide the same support and success to other families, as they did for mine.”

Head Start is the federal government’s signature early childhood education program for families in poverty. It was created in 1965 on the basis of research indicating that such a program is key for academic success later in life.

Head Start was originally conceived as a six-week kindergarten preparation program for three- to five-year-old children delivered during the summer. But its founders soon realized that more than six weeks are needed to achieve that benefit. Just as importantly, it is only one of several strategies for supporting low-income families.

“We go way beyond what an average child care center provides,” says Jen Bailey, program director for 0-5 year old children at the Dane County Parent Council (DCPC), a community-based non-profit umbrella agency for Head Start and other early childhood programs in Madison, Wisconsin. “We help our families meet emergency needs for food, shelter and clothing, but we also work with them on building employment skills and defining long-term goals.”

In the Madison area, Head Start’s target population has grown from a few hundred to more than 7,000 since the program was launched fifty years ago.

“Our mandate is to serve the neediest of the needy and the poorest of the poor first,” Bailey says. “To identify our families, we are required to perform a comprehensive community needs assessment every three years.”

For that assessment, Head Start uses Census data to identify areas of concentrated poverty and enlists the help of community centers, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinics, food pantries, county health departments and other health care providers to recruit families in need.

Today, more than 300 DCPC staff members and countless community volunteers provide services to over 1,000 families enrolled in the program. The 16 program sites range from Middleton in the west, DeForest in the north, Sun Prairie and Stoughton in the east to Verona and Monroe in Green County south of Madison’s city borders.

In 1999, DCPC added the Early Head Start program to serve infants and toddlers up to 3 years of age. Early Head Start accounts for 20 percent of families and Head Start for 70 percent; the remaining 10 percent use DCPC’s subsidized child care services because their income exceeds the cutoff for the federally funded program that is provided free of charge.

Almost 40 percent of DCPC’s families are Hispanic and 33 percent are non-Hispanic black. The remainder are non-Hispanic white (7 percent), Asian (6 percent) and multiracial (16 percent). Single-parent families outnumber two-parent families, and about half of them are unemployed.

The Head Start curriculum focuses on three cornerstones: health and nutritional services; social-emotional learning; and literacy and math skills. Head Start is typically delivered in a preschool classroom format, while most Early Head Start programming uses home visitation, with an emphasis on parental support and education.

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This photo of Lady Bird Johnson visiting a Head Start classroom was taken in 1966, one year after the federal government started funding the program. The First Lady served as its Chairman while her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, was President. Credit: Wikimedia/Creative Commons License.

Few staff members are more familiar with Head Start’s curriculum than Angela (Angi) Fettes. She has experienced the program’s benefits first-hand, on more than one occasion: first, in 1979, as a three-year-old child who attended Stoughton’s Head Start program while her mom worked there as the cook; then as a mother of two sons, who had the same Head Start teacher as Angi eighteen years earlier; and then as a Head Start staff member herself.

“I definitely think Head Start helped me,” Angi says. “Since I was an only child, I didn’t have a regular playmate. Learning how to play and socialize with other kids helped me move into elementary school, where I felt pretty well supported.”

But then came middle school, where Angi suddenly realized that she was different from her classmates. “I was the only child with a single mom, everybody else had two parents. I also noticed that everybody was buying brand-name clothes and was in cliques, while my family just didn’t have the money for that.”

After a few rocky years in middle school, however, Angi regained her confidence. While she was in high school, she got her first job, which allowed her to buy her own clothes and help out her mom. She also became a cheerleader. She credits her mom with bringing her up with an excellent work ethic.

She had her first child soon after high school graduation; her second arrived four years later. Angi helped support her family by working in different child care centers. But when her older son was five years old, Head Start became an important step stool toward getting a college degree and building a more ambitious career.

“Our Head Start family outreach worker talked to me about career goals and told me about an available position at the Oregon Head Start site. So I applied and started working there as a teacher’s aide in 1999, when I was 23.”

She stayed for four years and then decided to get an associate’s degree in human services management, through a University of Phoenix online program. She joined AmeriCorps to work at different youth centers in the Madison area and was director of a Middleton-based youth center for about three years.

But eventually, she realized that Head Start was her true calling. She returned to DCPC in 2012, this time as a family outreach worker. “That role is basically a family’s social worker whom they can call about anything, at any time. Of all the jobs I’ve had, this one was the most challenging. I make such a close connection with the families, because I know what it feels like, I have been in their shoes and in their children’s shoes,” Angi says.

While her own experience of poverty is an invaluable help for building trust, it also comes at a personal cost. “It is hard not to take all of their worries and problems home with me. When I go home at the end of the day, I worry about my homeless families not knowing where they will go tonight. I wonder if they will find a place to cook the food that we picked up at the food pantry earlier that day.”

Jen Bailey is the program director for Head Start and Early Head Start at the Dane County Parent Council in Madison. Contributed photo, DCPC.
Jen Bailey is the program director for Head Start and Early Head Start at the Dane County Parent Council in Madison. Contributed photo, DCPC.

The significant increase in the number of homeless families in the Madison area is something that Jen Bailey worries about as well. She says the number of those families has doubled in Head Start and tripled in Early Head Start during the last two to three years.

“In the fall, we will open our second classroom serving just kids that are homeless, and will continue to direct resources to transportation and other basic needs of these families,” Bailey says.

Head Start’s commitment to providing healthy and nutritious food and ensuring regular medical and dental care is particularly valuable for homeless children.

But homelessness presents challenges beyond Head Start’s financial resources. Early Head Start’s home-based model for delivering services can no longer be implemented, especially since Madison’s homeless shelters don’t even stay open during the day.

“If a family lives in a shelter, they have to leave first thing in the morning and can’t come back until the evening,” Bailey explains. “So we have families and babies that are wandering the streets. How do you find a job with a baby in tow?”

Nobody can pinpoint the exact reasons for Madison’s increase in homeless families, though most agree that some of them have left poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Chicago because Madison is said to offer better opportunities. “That is true, but now those greater resources are being stretched pretty thin because the demand has gotten so high,” Bailey says.

As program director, she is also concerned about the impact of homelessness on the Head Start staff.

“We’re starting to see some burn-out in our home visitors because they’re working with families in this terrible crisis situation,” she says. “It’s hard not to have your heart break when you’re dealing with a family with three kids that is living in a car the entire winter.”

Read more about the history of early childhood education in Wisconsin here, and more about the long-term impact of Head Start here.

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