- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2002

Next school year, Montgomery County plans to start a new early childhood schooling program called Fast Start. The mission of the new program will be similar to Head Start, the federal preschool program designed to give poor four-year-olds a jump start on their education. But, Fast Start classes will be shorter and taught by certified teachers, and the focus will be reading and counting skills. This is an intriguing break in a county as wealthy and liberal as Montgomery County. It is certainly welcome. While it does not mean that Montgomery County will be immediately bolting from Head Start, it does suggest that school districts are finally facing the fact that Head Start must be reformed, and the reform must start on the local school level.
Head Start, which was established in 1965 as part of the civil-rights agenda, has never reached its potential. Studies have shown that whatever benefits children have gained by Head Start are lost by the time they enter third grade including academics. The primary reason for this failure is that Head Start is not a skills-based program; it is a comprehensive program which focused on costly transportation, social and feeding services. For example, one new federal mandate will require that all buses carrying Head Start students must be equipped with child-safety restraints. In fast-growing Montgomery County, that mandate alone could cost $2 million. As things stand, Montgomery County taxpayers are already paying extra for Head Start. The county receives $3 million in federal funds for 830 Head Start students, while the county allocates an additional $7 million to service another 1,500. If things go as planned, the Fast Start program will mean that those 830 children will continue in Head Start. Meanwhile, that allows the county to expand services to 1,700 children.
Who could argue with such a win-win proposal? Head Start supporters contend that academics is but one part of an educational equation, and that the social and emotional needs of at-risk preschoolers won't be tended to properly in programs such as Fast Start. The National Head Start Association also argues against transferring Head Start from the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services to those at the Department of Education, a move the Bush administration is considering as part of its efforts to bolster preschoolers' school readiness. Meanwhile, the Head Start association is urging a $1 billion increase in funding when the Head Start bill comes up for reauthorization next year.
To be sure, there are many needy youngsters and families who have benefitted over the years from some of the services provided by Head Start. Yet, that does not mean that the program cannot be reformed, nor does it mean that more taxpayer funds will strengthen Head Start. Competition from such programs as Fast Start will be helpful in developing effective approaches.
Like Head Start, Fast Start will target 4-year-olds. However, where Head Start spreads itself thin by focusing on socioeconomic disparities, Fast Start will focus on academics, which is of primary importance in a county that always has prided itself on academic achievement. Unlike Head Start, Fast Start classes will be taught by certified teachers, and will be based on a curriculum. Fast Start also will tend to children who, because of poverty or language, are considered at-risk.
Sounds like that is an initiative federal authorities and other school districts should look at.

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