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
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
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
"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
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.