A Head Start on Head Start

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					                                             February 3, 2008

                                 A Head Start on Head Start
By Michael Winerip
(BRENTWOOD, N.Y.) IT appeared to be a single-family home, but like so many houses in this high-
poverty area, this one had been split into several apartments. Maria Lopez, a caseworker for the Parent-
Child Home Program, unlatched the backyard gate, crossed the patio and knocked at a double-glass door.
Elsa Ramos, 27, was quick to answer, and while she was plainly happy to see Ms. Lopez, even happier was
her 3-year-old daughter, Darianne, who knew exactly what a visit from Ms. Lopez meant. “A new book,”
Darianne whispered.
For the next half-hour, while Ms. Lopez
looked on, the mother and daughter read
“Moo, Moo, Peekaboo!” featuring farm
animals that Darianne could view through
flaps and windows, making them that much
more exciting. “What’s a cow say?” Ms.
Ramos asked.
“What goes quack?
“How many ducks?”
After reading the book twice, they cut out
eight paper ducks Ms. Lopez had brought in
                                                  A LITTLE HELP Maria Lopez, standing, a caseworker for the Parent-
her carry bag, and Darianne used a glue stick     Child Home Program, guiding Darianne Ramos, 3, and her mother, Elsa, 27,
to paste them onto a blue-construction-paper      through a play session.
And then it was time for Ms. Lopez to go. The half-hour was up.
In all the world, the Ramoses own 42 books, which they keep on a shelf above the kitchen table. Each one
was brought by the Parent-Child Home Program.
“My daughter learn so much,” said Ms. Ramos, whose first language is Spanish. “She learn everything. All
night she tell me, ‘Mommy, we have to read the book.’ ”
And that pretty much is the entire Parent-Child Home Program — which is now operating in 150 poor
communities in 13 states. The program aims to foster literacy and teach parents how to prepare their
children for school. It may well become a national model as the effort to close the achievement gap focuses
on how young children are being raised at home.
“The key to the program is its simplicity,” said Beatrice Gifford, the Brentwood coordinator. “Parents don’t
have to do any homework to prepare, so it doesn’t intimidate or become an obligation. The visit’s short,
and we come whenever it’s good for the mom — from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.”
Her staff makes two half-hour visits a week for the two years between the child’s second and fourth
birthdays. One visit, the family gets a book, the next, an educational toy. When Ms. Gifford visited Jamie
Connelly’s basement apartment recently, she brought “Corduroy Goes to the Doctor” for Jordan, 3, and
Jayson, 2, and the next time she gave them a toy doctor’s kit.
“Most people don’t want someone coming into their home,” Ms. Gifford said. “But if you bring a book or
toy, it’s a hook to get in.” While the home visitors are there, they gently model parenting skills that
demonstrate how to educate through play. (“What color is the chicken?” “Let’s count the dogs.”)
The program is not new — it began in the mid-1960s, on Long Island, at the same time Head Start was
created for 4- and 5-year-olds. But while Head Start has grown to serve 900,000 children with a $6.8 billion
federal budget, the Parent-Child Home Program has had to stitch together funding from states, school
districts and foundations. It now operates with a $15 million budget and serves 6,400 children 2 and 3 years
A growth spurt may be coming. Studies indicate that struggling families need more support, earlier, if the
achievement gap between rich and poor, and between black, brown and white, is to be eliminated.
According to a recent Educational Testing Service study, starting in kindergarten average scores for black
and Hispanic children on reading and math assessments are 20 percent lower than for white children, and
that gap persists through high school.
                                                 The E.T.S. report points out that 2-year-olds from poor families
                                                 are twice as likely to be in low-quality day care as middle- and
                                                 upper-class children, and the Parent-Child Home Program is an
                                                 attempt to improve the odds for those children. “There’s a
                                                 growing understanding of brain development and the fact that
                                                 children are significantly influenced in their homes long before
                                                 they get to school,” said Sarah Walzer, the national director of
                                                 the program, who is based in Garden City.
                                                 In the last decade, the program has been the subject of several
                                                 favorable academic studies, has quadrupled the number of sites
                                                 nationally and has won support from the Bill & Melinda Gates
                                                 Foundation. The foundation is part of the Seattle-based
  Another caseworker, Ana Larios, far left,      Business Partnership for Early Learning, which in 2004
  doing the same for Keyli Galeas, 19, and her
  3-year-old son, Christian.
                                                 financed the Parent-Child Home Program to do a five-year test
                                                 project in that city’s poor neighborhoods.
Results elsewhere have been promising. A study released last month by LaRue Allen, a New York
University professor, found that 135 Long Island kindergarteners from low-income families who went
through the program performed as well as their middle-class peers in tests measuring early literacy and
classroom readiness. A 2002 South Carolina study in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology
found that even though children who had gone through the program were among the poorest in the state,
they scored above average for school readiness at the start of first grade. And a 1998 study, also in The
Journal, reported that 123 children who went through the program in Pittsfield, Mass., in the late 1970s and
early 1980s were far more likely to graduate from high school than a control group (84 percent versus 54
Only Massachusetts and Pennsylvania finance the program through their state budgets. In New York, it’s
up to local school districts like Brentwood. There are 17 sites on Long Island, 6 in Westchester County and
5 in Rockland County, as well as 3 in New Jersey, but none in Connecticut. In tough times, the program is
often the first cut by a school district. “In Central Islip the budget failed and they eliminated the program,”
Ms. Gifford said. “Recently, they just took it back. Hempstead cut most of it out. Roosevelt, we’ve been
there and lost it. Sometimes we get cut midyear.”
Ana Larios, a home visitor, went through a backyard to get to the basement apartment of Keyli Galeas, 19,
a single mother. Ms. Larios brought a magnetized barnyard sticker set for Christian, Ms. Galeas’s 3-year-
old son. For the first 15 minutes, the mother sat quietly, watching her son and the home visitor play. Then
slowly, she began to join in. “What color is the horse?” said the mother, and when Christian answered,
“Black,” she took over. “What’s the rooster say?” the mother asked. “What color is the duck?”
E-mail: parenting@nytimes.com
                                                                        *pictures by Maxine Hicks for The New York Times