Dispatch from the front lines: A week in Head Start

I spent a rather frantic week in Iowa last week. I know, that does sound sort of paradoxical. I’ll explain: I was collecting the last bits of data for a study I’m conducting in a collection of Head Start spots in Iowa. This required a lot of riding around town, zipping through various schools and agencies with a formidably energetic and connected special education interventionist, plus a good deal of running around (literally) behind preschool teachers begging for interviews. It was a grand time. We have some good-looking data, which we’re hoping shows the promise of a play-based intervention we’ve been using for eons but haven’t ever bothered to quantify before.

In any case, while running to and fro last week, I had some remarkable moments with preschool students and teachers.

  • A miniature United Nations (one boy from Somalia, one from an Arabic-speaking middle eastern country, and one White U.S. born) of preschool boys managed to agree on and build a huge tower of blocks, and did not fall into cultural divisions when it all fell apart.
  • The terror! A three year old boy expressed great horror at the “yellow spider” his teacher drew on the white board. The fact that she called it a sun made little impact.
  • The tenderness and care children can take with each other when taught how to do so.
  • Enormous numbers of smiles and hugs that greeted us in every place we visited.
  • Surprise when I found a man(!) working as a teacher in one of the rooms. The children clearly loved and respected him, and he clearly reciprocated.

At the end of the week, all worn out from getting up and down from the floors of various classrooms, running around town, and investing great amounts of energy and worry into the examination of raw data, I was once again reminded how important Head Start is to the educational system in the U.S. Head Start is celebrating 50 years this year. It was one part of the vast War on Poverty instituted by President Johnson in 1965, and is arguably the most successful of the programs begun then. It’s certainly impacted the greatest number of poor Americans of any of those original programs.

In more recent and less charitable years, HS, along with every other educational or human services-oriented government endeavor, has met with funding cuts and reductions in support by politicians. We’ve had a period of austerity of compassion for about 20 years, off and on. Head Start has demonstrated its importance hundreds of times over 50 years, including studies that show better educational outcomes in adulthood for kids who went than for those who didn’t. But these programs are expensive, according to our current batch of elected officials. Never mind that the entire budget of Head Start is less than some of the line items including in the defense or federal prisons budgets, it’s still been a target for cuts lately.

Just this week, Pope Francis moved Oscar Romero along the path to sainthood, and he had a little chat in his office with a liberation theologian. Liberation theology has been unfashionable for about 30 years now due to its emphasis on possibly communist ideas like helping the poor and needy. Although His Holiness isn’t an elected official in the US, I’m hoping that the return of the Vatican’s attention to the poor and least signals a larger cultural sea change in the gaze of the public, from the austere and uncharitable Bush II years to a more pro-people focus redolent of the 1960’s, except with data and technology.

The Vatican seems an odd place for a revolution against greed and repression to begin, much like Iowa seems an odd place for a vacation. Let’s not count either one out just yet.

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