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County Schools Hope to Administer Head Start

The Arlington County public school system has applied to permanently take over

the Head Start preschool program, which serves nearly 300 low-income children in

the county.

In March, the Arlington Community Action Program, a nonprofit organization,

ceded control of the local Head Start branch to a federal contractor after two

federal audits found ACAP did not comply with the terms of its grants and

withheld payroll taxes.

The Community Development Institute currently administers Head Start in

Arlington until a permanent replacement is found. The program is funded through

federal grants, but run by community-based nonprofit organizations or school

systems.

Next week the Arlington school system will submit its application, but does not

know how many other organizations are seeking control of Head Start or when a

decision will be made, said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for

instruction.

"We are very enthusiastic about this," Johnston said. "I think we would be

well-considered for it because of our record of providing quality

pre-Kindergarten experiences for children."

HEAD START WAS launched in 1965 as one of the centerpieces of President Lyndon

Johnson’s Great Society program. It provides free preschool services for

low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, and helps prepare them for the rigors of academic

life in Kindergarten.

The program supplies a range of other services that promote healthy development

in young children, including mental health counseling and nutrition guidance.

Head Start administrators also encourage parents to become more involved in

their children’s education, and help place the parents in employment assistance

or scholastic programs.

"Having a quality, pre-Kindergarten education like Head Start makes a clear

difference in academic achievement over time," Johnson said.

School officials have called for increased preschool opportunities for Arlington

children, citing it as a key to boosting academic achievement and reducing the

county’s minority achievement gap.

"We have a good indication from over 20 years of studies of the lasting benefits

from a high-quality early childhood education," said Superintendent Robert

Smith. "Students do better in school, are less likely to need special education

and less likely to go to jail.

Smith added that spending on preschool is a sound investment for the community,

noting that a recent study found that every dollar spent on early education

saves $17 down the road.

The school system coordinates two preschool services: the Virginia Preschool

Initiative (VPI) and a Montessori program.

VPI was started a decade ago for 4-year-olds whose parents could not afford

private preschools. For a child to be eligible this year, a family has to earn

less than $62,000, said Michelle Picard, Arlington schools’ supervisor of early

childhood education.

Four hundred Arlington children are expected to enroll in VPI this year. The

school system provides more than 80 percent of the cost, with the state picking

up the remaining tab.

Two-thirds of the 374 spots in the Montessori program are reserved for children

from families of lesser financial means, with the remaining positions going to

children of any income via a lottery system.

SCHOOL OFFICIALS applied to become the Head Start provider to ensure that the

program will be well managed, and to give the school system a larger role in the

education of future full-time students.

"We see this as an opportunity to have a more direct role and evolve in how we

are providing services," said School Board member Ed Fendley.

If the school system does assume control of Head Start, all teachers in the

program will have to be fully qualified, with college degrees or certification

to teach preschool.

Head Start classes were held last year at Campbell and Hoffman-Boston elementary

schools, Langston Community Center and a church.

If transferred to command of the school system, most children will be able to

attend Head Start classes at their neighborhood school, Johnston said. But there

is not enough space in every elementary school to house the program, he added.

The children will benefit from taking Head Start classes in their future

elementary schools with future classmates, school officials said.

By having the schools run Head Start, the children will receive a "continuous

experience," Smith said, with the same standards, teaching philosophies and

curriculum that will be used in Kindergarten and beyond.

"This is an opportunity to provide a more seamless education in the sense that

it would orient [children] toward neighborhood schools … and better prepare them

for the Kindergarten experience," Smith added.