Head Start, celebrating its 50th anniversary this week, may be helping not just children, but the entire family in its war on poverty.
The program was started in 1965 by Sargent Shriver in an effort to make poor children smarter, and since then 31 million children from low-income families have been served across the country. The program has developed to meet the needs of the entire family, ensuring that children maintain the social and academic skills they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, while parents are able to further their education and gain employment.
According to research, children who complete the program are not only better prepared for school, but for their entire lives. Data has shown that program graduates hold higher high school and college graduation rates, are healthier, and often see more parent involvement in their education.
Recognizing that parents are the best teachers for their children, Head Start has instilled a sense of involvement in parents at their centers, which in turn has fostered a sense of support for their children's curiosity and learning.
According to Pam Fleege, Early Education and Care executive director, which operates 11 Head Start centers in Florida, "It's a program that focuses on the total child and family." She went on to say the program gets parents involved through classroom volunteering and participation in a policy committee, each of which "lifts the family up," according to Fleege. Many of the parents there go on to earn degrees and maintain long-term jobs for the first time.
A new study from Northwestern University agrees, finding that the program helps low-income parents improve their own educational status.
"In our study, we asked whether there could be separate story for parents," said study lead author Terri Sabol, an expert in early childhood policy. "Head Start may provide the ideal place to promote parents' education via a network of parents and staff, in addition to information and referrals to postsecondary educational opportunities." Head Start also may help parents manage their work-school-family balance by providing an affordable, safe place to send their children while they go to work or school.
The study discovered the benefits only applied to parents who enrolled their children at age 3. This may be due to their children being in the program for two years instead of one, or due to a difference in the parents, as parents who enrolled their children earlier tended to have a higher educational baseline than parents who enrolled at age 4.
An additional study from Georgetown University and Columbia University has found that children of parents who use subsidies to pay for childcare during the toddler years are in turn more likely to enroll in Head Start or a public pre-kindergarten program during their preschool years.
While the Child Care and Development Fund does work with centers who focus on the education of the child, they may not have the same consistent goal of providing educational experiences for young children as Head Start does.
"Our study highlights a previously unconsidered benefit of the subsidy program," according to Anna D. Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, who led the study. "If subsidies at an earlier age, when Head Start and public prekindergarten are not yet widely available, help move children into those programs when children become age-eligible, then subsidies may provide another avenue through which policy can strengthen the early development of low-income children.
The program currently serves over 1 million children each year, almost half of the amount eligible, using $8 billion in annual funding.