Federal proposal threatens core of Head Start’s success

Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP/Washington State Training Consortium
Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP/Washington State Training Consortium Courtesy

Preschool works best when it works with the whole family.

Since Head Start was created 50 years ago, it has succeeded by taking this approach, teaching children and working with their parents. At Head Start, struggling parents get help finding work, enroll in job training, access counseling and receive other support. Plus, Head Start offers a strong connection with their preschool.

The logic is simple. Stable families, led by parents engaged in their child’s education, are better prepared to give their child a strong start.

But this summer, federal policymakers are considering weakening this critical connection between Head Start and its families, as part of a proposal to revamp rules that govern the program. The proposal would diminish the voice of parents on Policy Councils, which establish the direction of local Head Start centers, by taking away their vote and replacing it with an advisory role.

It also would eliminate Head Start’s mandatory Family Partnership Agreement by making it voluntary.

Today, when a student enrolls in Head Start, parents and the local program work together on an agreement that assesses the family’s needs and sets goals. It helps parents with everything from how to support learning at home to how to find a stable job, housing and other basics of economic security that many of us take for granted.

“The Family Partnership Agreement is what sets Head Start apart and ensures long-term impact. It has been the basis of the program from the beginning,” one Head Start employee told me.

Since a parent is a child’s first and most important teacher, this type of support is critical. Imagine how hard it is to be that first teacher if you are stressed about paying rent or, even worse, homeless. The harsh reality is that plenty of Head Start parents face these challenges because the program serves families living below the federal poverty line: $24,000 a year for a family of four.

These families are working hard to move up the economic ladder with Head Start’s help. Out of the 10,663 children served by Head Start in Washington, two-thirds come from families where at least one parent works. Many must overcome significant obstacles; nearly one in 10 families is homeless, and a quarter of parents have no high school degree.

Stable families benefit all of us because they are more likely to raise children who grow up to become productive and healthy adults. When parents connect with education early, they begin forming a bond with teachers and school that can help sustain their child’s success through elementary school and beyond.

Consider Shannon.

When Shannon enrolled his daughter in Head Start, they were both timid and more than a bit intimidated. Then Shannon joined the local Policy Council and began gaining confidence. The program connected Shannon with resources he needed to go back to school, and today he is the first member of his family to graduate from college.

As important were improvements in his daughter’s classrooms skills, including development in speech, reading and math. Together, they learned education can be important and fun.

“Without the Policy Council I would never have been able to have a voice in my daughter's education,” Shannon told us. “I wouldn't have finished college. The Policy Council has given me the confidence to pursue a better life, and Head Start has given me the tools to help my daughter succeed in school, too.”

This is what can happen when a preschool engages and supports parents. We can certainly strengthen Head Start’s model. But it would be a terrible mistake to weaken the two-generational approach that has made it so successful.

As we consider how to make Head Start even better, we need to preserve the foundation of the program – working with the whole family to ensure a stable, supportive environment for the child’s success in school and life.

You can read and comment on the proposed Head Start changes here.

Joel Ryan is executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP.