By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
Four-year-old Nathan Link already knows his address and phone number and can name his body parts — even those hard-to-remember ones like the jaw and elbow.
Nathan was in daycare from the time he was 3 months old until after he turned 3. His daycare had a curriculum and he learned some things, his mother said.
But in the year since he enrolled in the Kokomo Area Head Start program, he has grown leaps and bounds.
“It’s been a big help,” his mother, Rachel Link said. “He knew a lot, but he just needed an extra boost.”
The federal government developed the Head Start program in 1965 as part of the nation’s “War on Poverty.” Since the beginning, its goal has been to boost the school readiness of low-income children.
But does it achieve that goal?
Some are now saying no.
In 1998, Congress mandated the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determine, on a national level, the impact of Head Start on the children it serves.
It followed a group of Head Start children through third grade and monitored their progress along the way. Those children were then compared to a similar group of children who attended other preschool programs.
The department released its final reports from the study in December, surprising some people with its findings.
“Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through third grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through third grade,” the study states.
So the benefits of Head Start fade out over time, the study contends.
Media outlets quickly began questioning what this meant for the program.
Fox News declared in January that taxpayers weren’t getting a good return on their investment in a story headlined “Head Start’s sad and costly secret — what Washington doesn’t want you to know.”
Locally, Head Start Director Julie Worland is waging her own campaign to prove the naysayers wrong. She is fighting data with more data.
She knows her program is one of the top in the nation, she said, but she wants to prove it.
“People want research,” she said. “We want hard evidence of our own.”
The program has plentiful data on social services it provides.
For example, 99 percent of Kokomo Area Head Start children had access to some type of health insurance by the end of last school year, and 98 percent had received dental exams by the end of the year.
Forty Head Start fathers participated in the fatherhood program there. Seventy-six percent of its families received some sort of crisis intervention — such as food, clothing or shelter — during the school year. Fifty-seven parents received help to earn their GED during the year.
All of these numbers are available in the information reports that every Head Start program in the nation is required to make public every year.
Statistics on educational outcomes are a little harder to come by. Worland said programs have only been keeping records on those numbers for a few years.
For decades, academics weren’t as much of a focus for Head Start programs, she said.
The Head Start program itself is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, not the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s leaned heavier on the social services,” Worland said. “Now they want to balance it out.”
Head Start programs today have to document the progress their students are making in 11 different areas including math, social studies, science, literacy, language development, physical development, social and emotional development, creative arts expression, logic and reasoning, English language development and approaches to learning.
On a recent afternoon, a teacher tested a young boy on his body parts. She asked him to point out his jaw and chin, which he successfully did.
But he couldn’t quite figure out where his knees were.
A teacher jotted down notes throughout the quiz. Data from assessments like that are compiled throughout the year to show how students are performing.
For instance, by the end of last year, 89 percent of Kokomo’s Head Start students could write their own names — up from 69 percent the year before. Sixty-eight percent of last year’s students could count to 30, and 72 percent recognized 21 or more letters of the alphabet. Just 62 percent knew that many letters in 2011.
Head Start programs across the state collect data on educational outcomes to report to the federal government.
Many of these programs post this data online for the public to see. Information from online program reports indicate Head Start students in the Evansville area struggle with math and science. Only 57 percent could arrange objects in a series last year. Sixty-two percent could recognize patterns and repeat them. But 93 percent could climb up and down.
Worland and Kokomo-Center School’s Director of Programs Dawn McGrath said they would love to be able to compare data between programs, but often it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Programs use different assessments when testing students. There are three main assessments in Indiana alone.
Worland and McGrath are working at the state level to change that, though. They are in the process of developing a statewide database of information.
All of the state’s programs will eventually be invited to submit data from a uniform set of assessments. That way programs throughout Indiana could gauge how they’re doing compared to other programs. Educators could learn from one another, McGrath said.
It’s a groundbreaking idea. No other state in the nation has tried this.
“I want to be the first,” Worland said. “I think this is really, really good.”
And it’s something that’s needed, especially now that people are questioning whether Head Start is worth the money, McGrath said.
“You have to prove that kids are growing,” she said. “It’s solid evidence of the strength of your program. You can believe it. You can feel it. But if you can prove it...”
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