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MSIs May Be Called On To Produce Degree-holding Head Start Teachers

One of the nation’s premier early childhood programs is likely to build new partnerships with minority-serving colleges and universities under legislation just approved by Congress.

The House- and Senate-approved bill for Head Start contains new accountability provisions to increase the education level of teachers in the federally funded preschool program. Within six years, at least half of all teachers in the program must have bachelor’s degrees, and the bill envisions a role for Black and Hispanic-serving institutions in that process.

“We will reinvigorate Head Start and help more children arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., a Congressional Black Caucus member.

Under a career ladder program created through the bill, Head Start agencies can partner with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities to increase the number of Head Start staff earning associate and bachelor’s degrees. Colleges are to work with agencies that enroll a large number of Black, Hispanic or American Indian children.

Created in 1965, Head Start provides education, social, health and support services to preschool youngsters and their families. In recent years, the national trend to emphasize standards in elementary education has filtered down to the preschool level, with policymakers seeking early childhood programs that can help prepare at-risk youth for kindergarten and beyond.

For staff, many of them former Head Start parents, professional development and training are increasingly important issues. Prior to approval of this new bill, more program staff were required to have at least associate degrees, which prompted new partnerships between Head Start agencies and two-year colleges.

Head Start also will have more funding available to help staff pursue the educational opportunities outlined in the new bill. Formally called the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act, the measure would increase funding from $7.3 billion to $7.6 billion in 2009 and $8 billion in 2010.

Extra funding could go toward increasing teacher salaries and professional development, among other uses, the legislation states. The more than 1,000 local Head Start agencies would have to develop annual professional development plans for staff, and teachers would need to receive additional training to work with at-risk children and those with disabilities.

“Head Start teachers and staff are the heart and future of the program,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “They help children learn to identify letters and arrange the pieces of puzzles. They teach them to brush their teeth, wash their hands, make friends, and follow rules.”

Many HBCUs already have a long history of collaboration with the Head Start program. At Spelman College in Atlanta, the Professional Training for Head Start and Early Head Start Teachers program helps teachers earn a bachelor’s degree in child development. The program encourages the completion of a bachelor’s degree within five years.

The project also includes a literacy component to enrich Head Start lending libraries and provide a group of literacy volunteers who read to children and help teachers with literacy development activities in the classroom.

In addition to the career ladder program, the bill would require programs to update early learning standards and use best practices to support children’s emerging literacy and vocabulary skills. It also would end further use of the National Reporting System, a controversial assessment given to all 4-year-olds in the program. Critics had argued that young children are not reliable test-takers and that the results may penalize rather than inform local program providers.

Recent studies also have shown gains for low-income children participating in the program, both while in Head Start and through the educational pipeline. In a new congressionally mandated study, researchers found that Head Start narrowed the achievement gap by 45 percent in pre-reading skills and 28 percent in pre-writing skills, Conyers said. “Head Start graduates continue to gain ground after they leave the program,” he added.

Other studies have shown that former Head Start participants are less likely to need special education services and more likely to attend college, he noted.

The Head Start bill is headed to the White House, where President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law.

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