The Montgomery County school system is fomenting a quiet revolution against one of the longest-running and most entrenched federal poverty programs. By next September, the first phase of a new early childhood program will be in -- and Head Start may be on its way out.
Montgomery officials say the idea, which has been burbling for two years, is based on a few key contentions: The current Head Start preschool program doesn't reach as many poor and struggling 4-year-olds as it could. As the county grows, so will the number of children left out. In tight financial times, Head Start is too expensive. And it doesn't work.
"Head Start's been around for 40 years," said James Williams, deputy superintendent of schools, who has been spearheading the effort. "It's time to look at something new."
The new program is called "Fast Start." As County Council President Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) will explain to the council's Education Committee tomorrow, it is a streamlined version of Head Start -- shorter by an hour, with slightly larger class sizes and an "academic" curriculum -- taught by a certified teacher and an aide -- that focuses on the alphabet and preparing children to read and do math.
It has none of the expensive mandates -- such as lunch, transportation and family services -- that the federal program requires. That is part of what upsets many Head Start teachers and supporters, who oppose the changes.
"The neediest of the needy are going to be hurt the most," said Sarah M. Greene, president of the Head Start Association, a national nonprofit organization that supports local Head Start programs across the country.
"The academics is only one phase of what these children need," Greene said. "Boy, the health services, that is one area that is so crucial. The social and emotional needs of young kids who live in neighborhoods where they see violence and crime is great. These children need a lot of care, and their families do as well."
The reason Montgomery County is pushing for change is the same reason Head Start was created in the first place: to give poor children whose parents cannot afford private preschool a boost, to close a yawning achievement gap between rich and poor students and to give poor children an equal shot at the American dream.
Study after study has shown that by third grade, any early benefit a Head Start preschool program has provided -- the schooling, the health care, the family counseling, the home visits -- is gone. The participants score about the same on tests as poor children who never attended preschool. They are just as far behind their middle-class peers.
"This is important to the quality of life in Montgomery County," Williams said. "Our county is growing so fast, and the majority are minorities with language deficiencies. To improve education, we have to start in the early years. We have to close the achievement gap right where it starts, at four years of age."
The issue of changing Head Start arose in Montgomery County a few years ago when the demographics were changing rapidly, the achievement gap was widening and officials realized that they weren't reaching as many as 1,000 children who, because of poverty or language, were considered "at risk" of failing in school.
Currently, the county receives $3 million from the federal government to serve 830 children who are the poorest of the poor, falling below the federal government's poverty line, $18,000 for a family of four. Montgomery County kicks in $7 million to reach an additional 1,500 children who meet the county's definition of need, which is twice as high as the federal government's.
What the county proposes to do next September is continue the full services for only the 830 who qualify for the federal Head Start program and switch everyone else to Fast Start. Doing that, officials say, will enable them to expand the program to reach an additional 200 children next year.
Then county officials plan to meet with federal overseers of the Head Start program to try to make the federal program more academic and more like Fast Start.
The county change is both driven by and contingent on one critical element: The federal government has a new requirement that all Head Start buses be equipped with child safety restraints, beginning in January 2004.
Marshall Spatz, budget director for the school system, estimates that the bus safety mandate alone will cost $2 million a year. "That's about half of what we get from the federal government now," he said. "We're not even sure how we'd we able to comply with that, much less fund it."
The expense of the federal mandates spurred school officials to move faster on overhauling the program. To implement the new program, the school system would have to ask the federal government to suspend requirements such as the safety restraints on school buses.
"We feel we should put the money in the classroom," Williams said.