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Yuba-Sutter educators, critics at odds over Head Start
Funding in 2011
NATIONALLY: $7.6 billion.
CALIFORNIA: $913 million.
Enrollment in 2011
YUBA COUNTY: 292.
SUTTER COUNTY: 280.
Source: Head Start Program Fact Sheet for Fiscal Year 2011
Parents and education professionals in Yuba-Sutter are continuing to support Head Start in the face of several federal studies that have highlighted the program's ineffectiveness.
Elena Luquin, who has taught at the Live Oak Head Start Center for five years and the Butte County Office of Education for more than 20 years, said opponents of the controversial child development program haven't worked close enough with the children to see the benefits.
"If they didn't have this program," she said, "I don't know what would happen to those kids."
Head Start employees in Yuba-Sutter maintain that Head Start works and say children who go through the program have better social skills, higher language development and increased cognitive knowledge. But studies show mixed results.
A 2010 study from the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds Head Start, examined key aspects of the program. Among a number of findings, it concluded Head Start's benefits were largely absent in first-grade children who had entered the program at age 4.
Similarly, others have criticized the program for its cost — nearly $8 billion annually nationwide — while questioning its effectiveness in preparing children for school.
Joan Davidson, director at Live Oak Head Start, said the studies vary because the ability to see development in young children can be difficult. Each child progresses differently, she said, and has to be evaluated based on observations instead of tests.
The idea is to get kids from low-income families to think critically, rather than simply answering a question on an exam, Davidson said.
Although not everyone is sold on Head Start's methods, Davidson said she is.
"I believe it does work," she said, "or I wouldn't be here."
Studies question Head Start’s impact
The latest study from the Department of Health and Human Services shows little differences in children after leaving the program, but Joan Davidson, director for the Live Oak Head Start Center, said Head Start is more than an average preschool.
The main difference can be attributed to the heavy emphasis on family involvement, she said. Parents are encouraged to come into the classes and observe their child's learning. They can also attend meetings with special guest speakers to talk about child-related issues like bullying or dental health.
Additionally, administrators meet with kindergarten teachers to ensure that Head Start children are prepared upon leaving the program.
But according to an October federal study, there is little evidence that supports the program's effectiveness past preschool. The study found there were few differences between Head Start children and their counterparts when it came to their elementary school experiences through third grade.
Evidence suggested that the program had an impact on children's language and literacy development while enrolled in the program, the study said. But according to the report, "these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of third grade for children in each age cohort."
All of the centers in Yuba-Sutter are run by E Center, a nonprofit corporation that receives about $19 million a year to operate Head Start in eight California counties, said Tom Wagner, chief executive officer at E Center.
Head Start's services are available to pregnant women and children ages 5 and under. To become eligible, the income of an applying family should typically rest at or below the federal poverty level. However, other circumstances — such as homelessness and children in foster care — may qualify a family as well.
So far, the program has been "tremendously successful," Wagner said.
Enrollment is up to 280 children in Sutter County and 292 children in Yuba County, with more kids coming in around May through October for the migrant season.
The program's success can be attributed, in part, to its evolution over the years, Wagner said. At its inception in 1965, Head Start was more of a social service, he said, but has since shifted its emphasis to a school readiness program.
Hiring soon-to-be teachers is a part of that process.
In Yuba-Sutter, Wagner said about 50 percent of teachers are working toward their bachelor's degree.
Mother sees benefit for her son
Claudia Barajas says she has witnessed Head Start's effectiveness.
Barajas' son, who was asked not to be named, entered the program in August of last year with a speech delay, the failure to develop speech aptitude at an expected age. After two months, his mother already noticed a difference.
"He really changed drastically," the Yuba County resident said.
Her son's speech delay wasn't gone, but it had improved greatly, she said. On an academic level, Barajas noticed her son was ahead of his age group.
Elena Luquin, a teacher at the Live Oak Head Start Center, said her students get a jump on education because they are observed closely by parents and staff. Goals are set with parents and teachers to evaluate the children's progress.
Every day, Luquin circles her classroom and writes down her student's behavior on a clipboard, keeping a close eye on signs of progress in the areas of social development, language development, creative expression, health, cognitive knowledge and more.
If she sees improvement, she makes a note, takes a picture and puts it into that student's portfolio. At any point, parents can come into the class and view the portfolio of their child's progress.
"I'm very proud of the way we support the kids and their learning," she said.
CONTACT Griffin Rogers at email@example.com or 749-4783. Find him on Facebook at /ADgriffinrogers or on Twitter at @ADgriffinrogers.