Montgomery County teachers who work with the poorest children are surprised and dismayed by officials' plans to revamp Head Start and emphasize academics in the long-running federal program.
Sure to be lost for many preschoolers will be family services such as nutrition, transportation and home visits that provide the most lasting benefits for the "whole child," supporters say.
"We're pretty disappointed with what's happening," said Alice Thomas, a Head Start teacher at New Hampshire Estates Elementary in Silver Spring, one of the county's poorest schools. "We don't want early childhood education to become something that is motivated by test scores."
School and county officials are wrestling with whether to phase out or pare the support services for many children who now participate in Head Start. Those 4-year-olds would be put in a newly designed local program called "Fast Start."
To reach more children, Fast Start classes would be 2 1/2 hours, one hour less than Head Start, and have 20 children, three more than the federal program allows. The curriculum, taught by a certified teacher and an aide, would focus on skills that prepare children for reading and writing.
Thomas said that although teaching literacy is important, it is not enough. Her family was among the first Head Start families in California 30 years ago.
"I've always felt Head Start made a tremendous difference in my life," Thomas said yesterday. "Head Start is a lot of the reason I'm a teacher now."
Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's proposal has a lot to do with test results: Several studies have shown that Head Start's early benefits begin to fade by third grade. At the same time, new federal legislation requires school systems to boost scores for all children or face consequences that could include state takeover.
Weast contends that change is essential to reach more of a growing number of needy preschoolers and to narrow the system's stubborn achievement gap.
Officials say teachers were similarly dismayed when the kindergarten curriculum was modified several years ago, cutting down on time for play, art and music to emphasize academics. And yet, they say, a recent county study showed marked improvement for all children. The achievement gap between needy children and their better-off peers began to narrow.
"We have to do what's best for kids," said Deputy Superintendent James Williams, who has been meeting regularly with county and federal officials on the proposed overhaul. Teachers, however, say they have been kept in the dark.
Figuring out just what to do is where the disagreement begins. Those who advocate change, including many in the Bush administration, say that helping needy families is fine but expensive and that the benefits are unproved or elusive.
Head Start advocates say improving academic performance is part of a larger effort to help needy families become self-sufficient. Many studies have found that Head Start teaches children such social skills as how to behave in school and how to make friends. Researchers conclude that the program has reduced the number of poor children placed in special education classes.
"If you're really interested in serving the neediest of the needy, studies have proven that breakfast and lunch makes a difference, that having proper health services makes it easier to learn," said Richard Gonzales, former Head Start commissioner of New York City and now a consultant. "Once you start taking these things away, you take away the things that help a child learn."