In an effort to improve quality, Head Start in Baltimore City is in the throes of a provider competition; at the same time, expectations for kindergarten readiness are expanding. As we reexamine the vision for Head Start and pre-kindergarten, let’s not lose sight of the important contributions Baltimore Head Start has made to the well-being of children and families.
Our study of attendance in City Schools’ early grades resulted in a surprising discovery. Head Start students began kindergarten with better attendance than peers from City Schools pre-kindergarten. Not only that, they maintained a higher level of attendance through the end of third grade! That’s four years after leaving the program.
These findings surprised us because families who qualify for Head Start must be at the poverty level, which means, according to the 2013 Federal Poverty Guideline, a family of four has an annual income of $23,550. When educators talk about children in poverty, they often refer to the number of students receiving free or reduced price meals in schools. Children of families who earn 1.3 times the poverty level are eligible for the program. Yet despite their poverty, Head Start families, those most impacted by poverty and the life challenges associated with it, arrive in kindergarten with a strong commitment to seeing their children attend school regularly.
Yet Head Start students arrive less kindergarten ready than their peers. This didn’t surprise us because children impacted by poverty are often behind academically. What is exciting is that after four years of consistent attendance, they became comparable academically with their peers.
We know that attendance is most probably just one piece of the puzzle. We hypothesize that Head Start engages and empowers families in a way that enhances problem solving skills, creates a support network and nurtures a strong commitment to school attendance and education.
With our current focus on rigorous standards and literacy, I hope we don’t lose the “magic” that happened in these Head Start programs that created students and families so highly engaged in education.