Walking into the classroom at Robinson Secondary, a visitor is immediately struck by the ages of the students. The class is overrun with 3 to 5-year-olds, not middle- and high-schoolers.
The room is one big playground: students are drawing on the computer in the corner, arranging blocks in the middle of the floor, cutting colored construction paper at a round table, painting with water colors in the back of the room or sitting down at the front table and having a snack.
What the children at this Family and Early Childhood Educational Program [FECEP]/Head Start classroom are really doing is learning.
"We seem to forget children learn through play," said School Board member Ernestine Heastie (Providence), a former Head Start and pre-kindergarten teacher. "We want to make learning enjoyable and make it so they want to be in school. I sometimes think we're pushing them away with all the testing."
HEAD START is a program designed to prepare low-income children for kindergarten through education, and also assistance with social services, health services, parent education and family literacy. It is essentially a pre-kindergarten class that tends to the needs of the entire family not just the child.
However, a bill that has passed the United States House of Representatives in late July, could potentially change the program, making it no different from a regular pre-kindergarten class. On the Senate side, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions just days after passing in the House, where no major action has been taken since.
The House bill, the School Readiness Act, essentially proposes an eight-state pilot program where the oversight of Head Start transfers from the federal government to the state. It also gives those states the freedom to coordinate the Head Start program with existing state programs. It specifies that all comprehensive health and nutritional services currently provided by the program would continue.
It also moves the program to the domain of the Department of Education rather than the Department of Health and Human Services, which has overseen the program since its creation in 1965.
Many people fear handing the program over to the state will mean a reduction in the social services aspect of the program and is the first steps in making it a strictly educational-based program. That is, if funds aren't diverted from the program altogether.
"We sincerely support school readiness," said Jennifer Branch, the county's Head Start administrator, in a newsletter. "But it's extremely important that we continue to provide comprehensive services, including social services, parent involvement, health, food and nutrition. Children who don't have good social development, who are hungry, who don't receive good nutrition, who have health problems, don't do well in school. The concern is that funds would be distributed to the local programs by states, which may have different priorities."
IN FAIRFAX COUNTY, the program is a combination of federal, state and local funds. The grants are distributed through the county's Office of Children and programs are administered through the public schools, Higher Horizons in Bailey's Crossroads and the Greater Mount Vernon Community in Alexandria.
Typically, under the Family and Early Childhood Educational Program /Head Start program — local funds support Family and Early Childhood Educational Program and federal funds Head Start — teachers make home visits to families who are economically eligible for the program before school starts.
During the visit, the teacher finds out the family's overall needs and goals and will share the information with the program's early childhood specialists and family services assistants. The various specialists will assist the family in finding help, through county agencies, for everything from food and a place to live to medical care. In addition, Head Start parents are expected to take part in monthly meetings, which provide information on subjects as diverse as budgeting, disciplining a child and literacy, said Teri Walker, the acting Family and Early Childhood Educational Program/Head Start coordinator for the school system.
Walker said she worries that the proposed pilot has no enforceable guidelines for the states, which will be able to design a whole new program instead of continuing Head Start as it exists, essentially "watering down" the program.
"A state could, say, focus on education and the comprehensive services fall by the wayside," Walker said. "So, we'll have children not having their full-nutritional needs meet. … If a child doesn't have his basic needs met, he is not ready to learn."
The full-day classes typically have 16 children, a full-time teacher and full-time instructional aide. The school system has more than 1,095 students in the FECEP/Head Start program, with 242 strictly funded through federal money.
THE SOCIAL SERVICES part of the program are the unseen key to its success, said Heastie.
"Sometimes in struggling families, the child is not stimulated enough and the brain isn't developed enough," Heastie said. "The program has been a success and I think people don't always notice because the children start out behind. So people don't notice we catch them up.
"When I was a Head Start and pre-k teacher, there was a difference between the students. The pre-k students were usually at grade level in their cognitive and social development. Head Start students were more likely to be a year or so behind. They need social, behavioral and language development to become more confident and speak up and say their names and sentences."
Fairfax County created a specific curriculum for the program in the early 1980s, something many states are just undertaking now, said Walker. In addition, the teachers all have four-year degrees and a certification in early learning, with many having or pursuing a master's degree.
Typically a snack is available in the morning, there is always lunch and an afternoon snack provided. In some schools, because of the needs of the students, breakfast is provided as well.
Walker said the day is structured to give the students some freedom to take part in the activities they want to, but also has smaller group sessions that focus on a particular topic or skill.
The freedom to allow the child to choose his or her activities helps to develop confidence, social skills and even teach the students to use items, such as scissors or crayons, that he or she may not have at home.
"It allows some to be leaders and some to be followers," Walker said. "It's purposeful play, not random. It all builds onto other things. Puzzles, for example, builds to math and spatial concepts."