Head Start is US program designed to help children from birth to age five, who come from families with incomes below or at the poverty level. Its goal is to help these children become ready for kindergarten, and also to provide needed requirements like health care and food support. President Lyndon Johnson approved the program in 1965 as part of his more comprehensive social program that he termed the War on Poverty.
The Head Start Program has several facets and is now administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Early services include access to prenatal care and to food programs for mothers of newborns and for children under five.
Most are more familiar with Head Start programs that provide preschool education for children aged three and over. In order to participate in a preschool associated with the program, a family must qualify financially. Additionally, all children who are in foster care qualify, regardless of the foster family’s income.
If one is receiving welfare or disability, the child is immediately qualified for Head Start. Otherwise eligibility rests on income level. The federal poverty level is often way below that which would be considered a survivable income in certain parts of the country. For example, a family of four is considered impoverished with an income of $20,000 US dollars (USD) yearly. That is the maximum income allowable for children in Head Start pre-schools or for pregnant women participating in early Head Start programs.
Some Head Start preschools allow for 10% of their spots to go to families with a larger income. Usually, however, these preschools are fairly full, so children with parents who have an income above the poverty level may have no chance of enrolling in one.
These preschools have been shown to slightly increase the IQ of children entering kindergarten. Children who participate in the program also seem more ready to learn beginning reading and math. A government study released in 2005 shows that such children have mild to moderate advantages over children who participate in charitable community programs run to help impoverished students.
Other studies have not been so favorable. A 1995 study showed that white children derive more long-term benefit from the program than children of other races.
A 2004 study concurs with previous studies that children are more academically prepared for kindergarten as the result of Head Start preschools. However, these same children seemed less socially prepared to be in kindergarten and tend to have more behavior problems.
Others have questioned the IQ benefits of Head Start. Some cite that most children who do not participate in the program quickly catch up with peers in IQ level and academic readiness. Long-term effects may not be as beneficial as stated according to some studies. The 2004 study also showed that behavior problems tended to linger after kindergarten in students who had attended Head Start preschools.
Though there are disadvantages to the program, these studies can help Head Start adjust programs to reflect long-term need. No social program of this kind can be without a few issues. Head Start remains an important program by which many children benefit. Questions remain as to the longevity of such benefits and whether other programs or services would further help impoverished children and their families.