Awarded Best Student Magazine in the Country by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2021!

Heads Up

In Allison Peruso’s classroom, twenty children sit in a circle, quiet and cross-legged. “I thought it would be good for you to watch me write,” Mrs. Peruso says as she prints “Today is Tuesday” on the board in red marker. After leading a chorus of the “Days of the Week” song, sung to the tune of “the Addams Family,” she points to the words she has written. Children raise their hands eagerly to answer. Many can read the letters on the board.

If I didn’t know I was at the Helene Grant Head Start Center, a public preschool on Goffe Street, I would guess that this was a kindergarten classroom, and that the children sitting around the rug were not three and four years old, but five and six. A demanding curriculum is central to the Head Start program, particularly as the importance of early education increases in the public eye. “Times are changing,” says Myrna Montalvo, director of Helene Grant. “Thirty years ago, kids were not getting anything close to the level of preschool education we give today. With the pace of technology, kids now need to know more, earlier.”

Recently, however, New Haven Head Start struggled to provide quality childcare. A 2009 investigation conducted by the federal Administration for Children and Families concluded that the program violated sixteen different regulations. The violations ranged from incomplete health screenings to inconsistent employee trainings to undistributed toothbrushes found on a shelf, still in their original wrappings. The program was labeled an “at-risk Head Start agency,” one of only twenty-four cases to receive that categorization.

Tina Mannarino, supervisor of New Haven Head Start, acknowledges these former deficiencies with grace. “When you think back on it,” she says of the investigation, “it really was very helpful. It gave us the clout to make some very big changes.”

New Haven is the birthplace of Head Start. Edward Zigler, a Sterling Professor of psychology at Yale, designed the program in the early 1960s. In 1963, a New Haven preschool opened as a laboratory for the program. Head Start later went national as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, under the aegis of the Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start’s holistic approach sets it apart from other early education programs: in addition to providing preschooling to three- and four-year-olds from low-income backgrounds, the program also emphasizes health, nutrition, and parental involvement. Head Start provides training sessions for parents, for example, including courses in computer skills, résumé writing, and GED preparation. Keith Young, the agency’s male involvement coordinator in New Haven, works with fathers to encourage their engagement. The program has served over 22 million children across the nation. New Haven now has five Head Start sites, with 750 children currently enrolled.

“Other programs only focus on getting the child ready for kindergarten,” Mannarino says. “Our philosophy is that if you strengthen the whole family and environment, outcomes for kids are better.”

The largest and most influential change since the program was declared at risk has been a complete reorganization of the staff to increase oversight and accountability. Before the audit, one Head Start director was responsible for all five sites in New Haven. Now, each school has a site director to oversee all the functions of the preschool.

Montalvo is the site director at Helene Grant. “It’s much more of a community now,” she says. For two mornings, I watch her stand outside the building as children are dropped off. She greets every parent that walks through the double doors.

The 2009 review also found that children in the district weren’t getting dental health check-ups. It had proven nearly impossible, Mannarino explains, to make sure that hundreds of parents were taking their children to the dentist. The solution was simple and effective. A dentist came to the sites in a van loaded with equipment, and children received their dental exams at school.

The review additionally faulted the district for not engaging parents. “The Head Start program operated with little or no parental involvement in program decisions,” it stated. Since then, the program has established the Policy Council, a governing body comprised of elected parent representatives. According to Mannarino, the Policy Council must approve “basically everything” about the program, including matters of hiring and termination, transportation, and budget.

Two years after the review, reform efforts continue. This year the district introduced a new Scholastic Inc. curriculum. “We’ve been seeing results with it,” says Montalvo. Helene Grant School has also been the first site to introduce uniforms for students—yellow polos with navy slacks and skirts. “Parents like it,” Montalvo explains, “because buying a few uniforms is less costly than buying lots of clothes.”

The district passed its federal audit last year with flying colors. No deficiencies and no noncompliances were found.

When it comes to improvement, both Mannarino and Montalvo agree that the frequent reviews and audits conducted by federal agencies greatly help to keep the program in shape. “Even when you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do,” Mannarino says, “it’s good to have people come see you.”

This is one reason why a recent policy decision by President Barack Obama troubles Mannarino. In an effort to maintain high accountability in the program, Obama has declared that the private sector preschools will be allowed to vie for funding with the bottom 25 percent of Head Start sites. This aspect of Obama’s new plan is not, however, the part with which Mannarino takes issue. Instead, she is concerned that the top 75 percent of districts will not be reevaluated for five years. “Five years is a long time,” Mannarino says. Currently, the Administration for Children and Families reviews districts every three years. Audits and inspections by other agencies occur on different time cycles, ensuring that districts are kept on their toes at all times. The agency is due to review New Haven Head Start again next year.

New Haven Head Start also conducts studies of its own, testing its four-year-olds three times a year. For example, New Haven Head Start offers both ten-hour days and six-hour days. The program’s studies indicated that their children at school for ten hours a day were not progressing as quickly as children who came for only six hours. “We’re taking that very seriously,” says Mannarino. “And we are considering getting rid of the ten-hour option if it is not needed or effective.”

Not all changes have been universally popular. A teacher who has been in Head Start for over fifteen years says that some of the changes have imposed too much rigidity on both children and teachers. She cites “too much paperwork” and “not enough time and freedom to teach the children” as major problems. When asked where the burdensome restrictions come from, she gives me a knowing look. “They come from the same place where we get our money,” she says.

Though some might criticize excessive federal regulation, more criticize inadequate federal funding. “I would really like to see enough money for us to get all certified teachers,” says Mannarino. Of the five Head Start sites in New Haven, only at Helene Grant are all the teachers certified. “Having certified teachers makes a huge difference,” says Mannarino. “We never have gotten enough of an increase to support the change. We’ve been funded at the same level all these years, but health benefits and salaries keep going up. It’s difficult to maintain program quality with inflation.” In this recession, there are more children on the waiting list than ever before in district history.

Still, the New Haven district’s many successes demonstrate that government agencies can indeed make themselves more efficient and address their shortcomings. After talking to those involved in the agency, I’m tempted to say that its rigorous and self-critical approach is something that not only other Head Start districts but also the private sector might do well to emulate.

More Stories
A Hard Pill to Swallow