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Country's Flagship Preschool Program, Head Start, Celebrates 50 Years

Head Start of Norther Fairfield County
A girl plays on the playground at the Head Start preschool in Danbury.
Head Start was launched in an effort to help low-income children be better prepared for kindergarten.

About two dozen kids bounced around the classroom, drawing on dry erase boards, tapping on iPads, and building castles made of Play-Doh. Teacher Geneka Vickers hovered over a sink filled with blue water, the remnants of some learning activity.

Vickers first came to Head Start as a parent with two kids in the program. She started volunteering, and now she's been working there for over six years.

“I’ve always worked in childcare, but I like what Head Start stands for,” Vickers said.

It was 50 years ago that a Yale professor was asked to help create the federal preschool program, Head Start. The program was launched as part of the country’s war on poverty, in an effort to help low-income children be better prepared for kindergarten, like their wealthier peers.

The Danbury  program enrolls about 400 kids, including some who are only a couple months old.

But it's been hard for Head Start to meet the rising demand. There are currently about 350 children on a waiting list for the Danbury program, and thousands more waiting for spots statewide.

Meeting this demand can be challenging, especially as more and more kids exhibit behavior problems, says Monica Bevilacqua, director of Head Start of Northern Fairfield in Danbury.

“When I started 10 years ago, we had one child in the whole program that had severely challenging behaviors that we’d talk about at our management team meetings," Bevilacqua said. "Now there’s three or four in a classroom.”  

Bevilacqua's program is rated among the best in the country, in part because of how they've empowered families and educated kids. 

Credit Head Start of Northern Fairfield County
Head Start of Northern Fairfield County
Head Start preschoolers listen to their teacher read a story.

Each Head Start family is assigned an advocate, who works with parents to develop a protocol for dealing with any behavior issues, and also discusses academic progress with the family.

Lots of places in Connecticut are pretty diverse, so meeting the need of English language learners can be tricky, Bevilacqua said. So can dealing with kids who come from broken homes.

In Danbury, Hayward Mclain works as the fatherhood coordinator, and he often finds that he's the only positive male role model for some kids.

“I go into classrooms, and read to the classrooms, just to show them that males are involved in the education part of things,” Mclain said.

Some Head Start children are actually homeless, or are in the custody of the Department of Children and Families. Bevilacqua said that kids who don't get into Head Start face all sorts of challenges when they start kindergarten.

Many often end up being cared for by inexpensive babysitters with little understanding of early childhood education. These kids often start kindergarten unable to tie their shoes, sit in a circle, or follow simple directions.

But does Head Start really make a difference?

Some have criticized the program, and point to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that found little evidence that Head Start had any lasting benefits beyond third grade.

But Walter Gilliam said proof of success is there.

"The reality of what they did find was that the children who went to the Head Start programs did much better academically when they went to kindergarten," Gilliam said, adding that Head Start kids also "did better on social-emotional measures, they did better on literacy measures, and much better on a whole host of things having to do with a child being ready for school."

Gilliam is the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale, which is named after the father of Head Start, Edward Zigler.

Head Start graduate Jorge Rodriguez attended the program in Manchester. He's quick to point out how important it was not only for him, but also his parents.

“It provided my mother with an opportunity to be able to volunteer as a teaching aide -- be with me, be involved in my education -- and for her that actually spurred into work,” Rodriguez said.

His family immigrated to Connecticut from Puerto Rico a year before he was born, without being able to speak English. He said Head Start did exactly what its name implies -- gave him and others the foundation needed for future success in school.

If he didn’t go to Head Start, Rodriguez said, “I honestly don’t know if my mom would have had the work opportunities that she had afterwards. I don’t know if my parents would have been able to get resources.” 

Head Start is funded with federal dollars, and many, like the one in Danbury, also get state and local money. This year, the federal government gave about $8 billion to Head Start programs around the country. But advocates for early childhood education say investment needs to double or even triple to meet the need.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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