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Early Childhood Emphasis Deserves a Prominent K-12 Place, Federal Head Start Chief Says

Before becoming director of the federal Head Start program, Deborah Bergeron spent much of her three-decade career as a school administrator, including many years as elementary school principal in a building that also contained a Head Start program.

The Head Start program in her school might as well have been on the other side of town. Or the moon.

“I never engaged,” she told an audience at Thursday’s Thought Leader session on strengthening superintendents’ early childhood leadership skills.

However ironic, Bergeron’s experience is not unique. As she and co-presenter Edward Manuszak, superintendent of Dundee Community School District in Michigan, noted with increasing urgency that too many people inside and outside of education still believe or behave as if public schools have little or no role in the development of children before kindergarten. Programs like Head Start have little to do with their educational mission.

“Early education and childhood development were not part of the K-12 deal,” said Bergeron. “We need a major rethinking. Everything, including much brain research, points to the fact that the first few years of life are a period of incredible mental growth and development and that once this period is passed, you don’t get it back. So, why shouldn’t we do everything we can to help all children develop as fully as they can before they get to school? It’s in everybody’s best interests.”

The Head Start program began in 1964, originally conceived as a broad-based effort to fight poverty and assist families and communities at measurable socioeconomic disadvantage. That is still its mission, but over the years, the program emphasizes providing full, equitable access to educational opportunities in the earliest years of life, with education as a means to a better, richer life.

Over much of this time, the work of Head Start and public education did not seem to overlap, and many leaders and educators seemed content with the arrangement. They didn’t give it much thought. But the emergence of state pre-K programs, combined with the escalating challenges of educating underserved and disadvantaged families (45 percent of children in the U.S. live in low-income families, said Manuszak) are compelling educators to, as Bergeron suggests, rethink.

One manifestation of this rethinking is advocacy for new collaborations with more conversation and a willingness to work together. Bergeron said there should be coordinated enrollment of all eligible students, such as a single enrollment number for all early childhood development programs and unified marketing materials. Public schools and Head Start should not compete for them. There should be data sharing and shared professional development.

Manuszak pointed to the AASA’s new Early Learning Cohort, a consortium of superintendents across the country who gather to discuss early child development research, best practices and how to facilitate change. More specifically, he cited the Early Learning District Self-Assessment Tool, a co-publication of the AASA and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The tool allows superintendents and other school leaders to conduct internal, private assessments of their district to measure how well they are serving and educating four age-group demographics. It is meant to be eye-opening: Manuszak said the first time he completed the ELDSAT (which he designed), his district scored zero for child development programs, birth to 3 years old.

Bergeron said before any real progress can be made, there must be trust between public schools and programs like Head Start. “You have to create relationships,” she said. “You can’t be afraid that other programs are taking away from you. The need is too great.”

(Scott LaFee is media relations director at UCSD Health in San Diego.)

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