All in One Classroom: Blending Head Start and Non-Head Start Students

Blog Post
June 1, 2010

Today we feature a guest post from Neela Banerjee, a former New York Times reporter who covers a myriad of topics related to religion, immigration and education (including a recent post about the Census). She is also the mother of a preschool-age daughter in Washington, D.C.  

When 3- and 4-year olds enter the District of Columbia’s preschool programs in the fall, those who qualify for Head Start won’t be trooping off to a separate teacher and, in some ways, a separate early childhood experience, as happens in most places. Instead, Head Start and non-Head Start students will be blended together in classes, part of an effort by the District of Columbia Public Schools to bring Head Start services to nearly all children in its full-day early childhood program.
I’m among the small number of parents in DCPS who have already seen a version of the blended classroom first hand. When my daughter entered the program for 3-year-olds at West Education Campus in academic year 2008-2009, she was in a class that brought together Head Start students with middle-class kids. West, a Title I school, made a commitment not to separate children based on income, but to group them instead based on age. We all benefited from working with a teacher steeped in Head Start’s holistic approach to early childhood education.
In addition to the experiment at my daughter’s school two years ago, DCPS has been running pilot programs of blended Head Start and preschool this year. Miriam Calderon, DCPS’ director of early childhood education, said the drive to blend classrooms throughout the system’s Title I schools stems from a realization that many eligible children and families miss out on Head Start because of the limited slots available. About 4,700 students are enrolled this year in DCPS’ 3- and 4-year-old programs, and 1,782 of them are in Head Start, Calderon said. But the early childhood program’s review of income data from applications for free school lunches showed that another 1,500 students qualify but are enrolled in other classrooms. Rather than trying to bring those students into the Head Start system, DCPS has decided, essentially, to expand the system to cover all students in Title I schools, which account for 68 of the 84 elementary schools in the city.
“In my mind, what Head Start has done really well over four decades is what comprehensive early childhood care looks like,” Calderon said. “The screenings and the focus on nutrition and on parental involvement are things we want to spread, and in the process we have the chance to build a unified early education program.”
Calderon said that all available funding sources for 3s and 4s, local and federal, would support the school-wide Head Start model. DCPS currently receives $11 million in federal Head Start funds, which will remain fixed for the next school year. The district plans to spend approximately $50 million in local funds at the preschool and prekindergarten grades in Title I schools.
The new approach comes at a sensitive time for the Head Start program nationally, which has been attracting heightened interest – and scrutiny – over the past few years as the Obama administration has tried to make good on promises to expand early childhood investments. Just last week, an investigation by the General Accounting Office turned up fraud in several Head Start programs. And a study released in January showed that while Head Start children are more prepared for kindergarten than their peers after a year of the program, those gains are not sustained after a few years of elementary school. Meanwhile, questions about how to best integrate Head Start with state-based programs for pre-kindergarten are front and center among many child advocates and policymakers who want to build a less fragmented system of early education. (For more, don’t miss Early Ed Watch’s recent blog series: What’s Ahead for Head Start?)
Lauren Hogan, director of public policy at the National Black Child Development Institute, said her organization was excited about the district’s plan to blend the classes, and that she knew of no other jurisdiction merging Head Start and pre-K on such a scale.
"I think blending is great, as long as the blended efforts are designed to meet the highest quality of separate initiatives, which this effort is designed to do," Hogan said.  "I think it's good for parents and kids and teachers to be held to similar standards, so that kids don’t feel like they’re in this group or that group."
School-wide Head Start would provide development, vision and hearing screenings to all students in the district’s early childhood programs at Title I schools. Students would also be screened using a new assessment tool (similar to one already used with Head Start kids) that measures children’s development in areas like oral-language acquisition and learning in five broad subject areas. Instructional coaches would be hired to work with the early education teachers, and case workers would be assigned a cluster of schools whose families they will serve, Calderon said.
Other school districts around the country – including some in Kansas, Wisconsin and South Dakota -- already have blended preschools. In each case, programs were driven by different motivations, among them a sense that Head Start children could benefit more from being with other students than they could being in separate environment.
In Sioux Falls, S.D., all Head Start-eligible children in public schools share classrooms with students of other income levels. As Barbara Dowling, a 2008 National Head Start Fellow and early childhood teacher at a blended program at Hawthorne School, said:  “Personally, I want Head Start students to be with children with skills beyond those of at-risk children. They have to be the models, and a lot of it has to do with models that children see.”
In Kansas, three districts in different parts of the state, serving a total of about 400 children, took part in a pilot program this academic year that looks set to expand next fall. (A short video on the program can be found here.) Unlike Head Start in the District of Columbia, which is largely school-based, Head Start centers in Kansas are run by a mix of schools and community organizations. As a result, the pilot program had to dispel preconceptions that the schools and the Head Start providers had of one another.
“A lot of reasons people give for not doing this tend to be a lot of myths,” said Mary Baskett, executive director of the Kansas Head Start Association. “For example, I heard from one adult that it wouldn’t work because children from different programs can’t play on the playground together.”
The services and regulations that come with Head Start are often seen as another barrier. “We hear that Head Start requires so much,” Baskett said. “It’s not incorrect, but we have more staff than school districts have: health and disabilities people, family service workers.”
The biggest challenge, Baskett said, comes from merging the two cultures. Each local group working in the blended programs meets monthly to discuss progress and challenges. In the pilot blended programs, Head Start benefited from getting public school teachers with bachelor’s degrees, since Head Start instructors at Kansas community agencies aren’t required to have them. The teachers, however, were unaccustomed to the time demands the new blended program placed on them. Its training and planning meetings sometimes bumped up against the time parameters in the teachers’ negotiated contracts, but the program worked around those constraints.
Head Start also has children eat lunch family-style with teachers, so that the meal becomes an opportunity to work on language development, social skills, following directions and proper nutrition. Teachers, though, are used to lunch as a planning period away from their students. The family-style lunch didn’t go over well at first, Baskett said, but now teachers love it.
It’s unclear if DCPS will have family-style meals or if its time demands upon early ed teachers will pose problems. The broader issue, Baskett and others point out, is the abiding, entirely human resistance to change, even when people and institutions say they’ve bought into a new program. 
Still, bright, snappy new posters announcing the new pre-school system are already in DCPS schools, including the one I saw leaning against a wall in the office of my daughter’s school, which this past academic year, had returned to the traditional Head Start model of children separated by income.
Last year, when the children were together, I could see the changes that Head Start was bringing to children whose families met the income qualifications, especially in developing their language and social skills. For those of us in the non-Head Start families, the teacher supported and improved our parenting.  Her focus, for instance, on nutrition and dental care, unique to her classroom, amplified the message we were giving our daughter at home. Her very clear, developmentally appropriate language to guide children’s behavior about making ‘good choices’ and ‘bad choices’ gave all parents a simple, effective vocabulary to use. It will be exciting to see the model we used spread through the school system, and I’d be very interested to know, years from now, the impact this may have on the large population of low-income children in the DC school system.