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Five years ago, Charlotte Franklin happened to see the sign for Head Start at its central office on Colonel Glenn Road. Her son Christopher was then 3 years old and was staying at home with her. Franklin had been laid off and couldn't afford childcare. She wanted to get back to work, and she also wanted her son to begin his education.
"I thought it was time for him to get in a school environment, to start to socialize with peers of his age, and get those basic fundamentals before he went to kindergarten," Franklin said.
Enrolling him in the pre-K program was one of the best decisions she's ever made, she said. "I could see the difference. His vocabulary expanded. He gained a lot of confidence. He was eager and excited about learning."
It wasn't just lessons in the classroom. Head Start offered health, dental and mental-health screenings. It provided nutritious breakfast and lunch. Teachers did home visits, and helped Franklin develop teaching and parenting skills that she could apply at home. "They helped identify things, maybe as a parent, you don't see it," she said. "You're caught up in your struggles, you're trying to provide, you're trying to keep your own emotions in check. They helped me as a parent, helped me put a plan together." Franklin and other parents were invited to come in and volunteer, and she found the teachers and staff were eager to offer support and ideas to parents, and foster connections between the classroom and home. Franklin got involved in leadership roles in Head Start's policy council, and the program also encouraged her to identify her own goals, even helping her in the process of looking for a job.
When it came time for kindergarten, Franklin said that she noticed a big difference in how Christopher adapted compared with his two older brothers, neither of whom had the pre-K programming Christopher did.
"He already had the base of what he needed when he went to kindergarten," Franklin said.
He had been taught skills like sight words, colors and counting. Equally important, Franklin said, he had a comfort and confidence in being at school, interacting with other children, and following directions from a teacher. Simple things: he was already used to using a pencil and paper, lining up, following a schedule.
Franklin said that she wished she could go back and send his brothers to Head Start too. "It was just a world of difference with his readiness for kindergarten and progressing on after that," she said. "You can really change the direction of a child's life. I can just look at it in my old household."
Christopher is set to begin third grade at eStem in the fall, where he has been on the honor roll since kindergarten. Franklin believes that pre-school helped "carve out a path in life for him. It gave him that good educational foundation."
"He would come home and say words and everyone would say, 'How does he know that word?' " she remembers. "And using them in the right context! It would amaze me. I would just think, 'wow.' Because I know: Head Start did that."
Head Start (for 3- to 5-year-olds) and Early Head Start (prenatal, infants and toddlers) are federally funded programs offering pre-school education, health and nutrition services, social and emotional development, and intensive parent support for children and their families below or near the poverty line. Head Start organizations across the nation have been hit with funding cuts imposed by sequestration, the automatic cuts that went into effect last March when Congress failed to reach a budget agreement. The White House has estimated that up to 70,000 children could lose slots in the program because of sequestration.
The sequestration cuts were intended to be unpleasant — the president labeled them "dumb" and "arbitrary" — in order to spur lawmakers into action, but the gambit failed, and a little more than four months in, Congress has shown little inclination to take action. When the sequestration led to the cancellation of White House tours, it stirred up a media frenzy and an outcry among Republican lawmakers; when it led to airport flight delays, Congress speedily and overwhelmingly passed a fix. On the other hand, when pre-school programs for low-income children started shutting down weeks early at the end of the school year, laying off teachers and sending kids home, it did not generate the same political response.
In Arkansas, 21 agencies administer Head Start programs across the state, for a little less than 10,000 children in Head Start and a little less than 1,000 in Early Head Start. The 5.27 percent reduction in their budgets because of sequestration has led to staff reductions, furloughs, pay cuts, shortened schedules, cutting extended-care or home-based services, cutting transportation services, and cuts to technology, training, supplies, and materials. At the end of last school year, many centers were forced to close early, raising concerns about the impact on children of weeks of lost programming, and leaving parents suddenly without childcare. Despite a waiting list of almost 1,400 children across the state, no program will expand in the coming year.
"The programs are doing the best they can to make adjustments," said Jackie Dedman, director of the Arkansas Head Start State Collaboration Office. She acknowledged that programs across the state will be in a bind if the sequestration cuts represent a new funding reality. "Just to even think that these services would not be available would really tear down a lot of families in the state of Arkansas," she said. Still, she said, "we try to stay on a positive note," and she said that in developing their budgets after the sequestration, the organizations had focused on avoiding cutting slots. "We're trying to keep the children first," she said.
Despite these efforts, in many parts of the state, slots have to be cut, and children will not have access to the programs. Dedman said that based on the submitted plans thus far, 14 of the 21 agencies will cut slots, eliminating services for 675 children, a number Dedman expects to grow.
In Mississippi County in the Delta, Head Start Director Shirley Pulliam was forced to cut 13 days from the previous school year, and next year will cut 68 slots from Head Start and 30 from Early Head Start.
"It's going to be a loss for the children," Pulliam said. "It goes back to school readiness. That's 98 kids that are not going to be ready for kindergarten. If you lose them at kindergarten, then you worry about them getting tested in the third grade. It's a domino effect all the way through the education system. You never really catch up."
After years of flat funding, Northwest Arkansas Head Start Director Jerry Adair said "we were just making ends meet. When you're doing that and you get cut by that amount of money, we had to make tough choices." Last school year, centers closed 12 days early, and they will eliminate 75 slots for children next year.
"We're talking about 3- and 4-year-old children that will not be able to come in and have breakfast and lunch at the center, that won't get health screenings," Adair said. "That's before we even get in to the educational piece. Those children are going to start off behind. If we're not preparing them to start off on an equal footing, there's a possibility that they could remain behind." Adair had been hoping to add Early Head Start programs but those plans are now on hold in the face of budget constraints.
In addition to the children served in Head Start and Early Head Start, Arkansas Better Chance, a state-funded pre-school program, serves another 21,000 kids. The two programs combined reach 47 percent of eligible 3-year-olds and 80 percent of eligible 4-year-olds. Even prior to sequestration cuts, that leaves around 15,000 eligible low-income 3- and 4-year-old children in the state without slots.
Tonya Russell, director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services' division of child care and early childhood education, which oversees ABC, said, "We work very closely with Head Start" to try to maximize opportunities for eligible children between the two. But ABC does not have the capacity to pick up the slack from the sequestration cuts in the aggregate.
"At the end of the day, this means there will be fewer children served in Arkansas," Russell, herself a former Head Start student, said. "There's no way to say it any differently."
ABC has challenges of its own, with its funding flat since 2008, despite increasing costs to run the program. "We have been fortunate that we've not been cut while many of our colleagues in other states have been," Russell said. "We have been really lucky that Arkansas has really stood firm to that commitment. But it's been flat. We're getting to a point at flat funding where in the next few years ... we're going to have to cut something."
Russell pointed out that many Head Start programs have also been dealing with flat funding. "For years, they did everything they could except cut slots for children," she said. "This time they can't cut anymore. They've cut it to bare bones so now some have to cut classrooms."
Families and Children Together, which oversees Head Start programs in five counties in South Arkansas, managed to avoid having to close any of their centers outright. "We're the last holdout in some of these little towns," Head Start Director Brenda Holder said. "McNeil, Emerson, and others, we're the only pre-school. When a school closes in a town, the town just disintegrates."
Still, "we had to cut something," Holder said — the program is going to end home-based services for 79 children. "Some of us down here live in the boonies," Holder explained. "Not everybody, believe it or not in this day and age, has transportation. We have a lot of people who might have one vehicle but daddy uses it to go to the mill and leaves mom at home without transportation. A lot of times they're the very ones with the most questions and the most need."
Teachers visit the children once a week, giving them lessons with the parent present, and providing Head Start's various outreach services to the child and family. The teachers help the parents understand what will be expected of the child in kindergarten, role model and work with the parent to develop strategies for teaching the child on their own, and provide needed educational materials.
The impact of the cuts, Holder said, is "not going to be felt immediately. When we have a higher percentage of children entering school who are not prepared, the impact is going to be felt further down the road."
One of the children that will be losing home-based services is 3-year-old Aaliyah Rollins in El Dorado.
"They'd come out once a week and it would be me, her, and her teacher working together," Aaliyah's mother Melissa Stokes said. "It helped her tremendously. Her communication level has progressed and we're already working on sight words."
Stokes would always observe and sometimes participate along with them, so that she was picking up techniques and ideas she could carry on after the teacher was gone.
"I know that as a parent I'm her first teacher, but they helped teach me how to teach her," Stokes said. "They showed me new ways to work on a lot of new things."
Stokes was devastated when she found out that the home-based program was getting cut. "I was so grateful that they had a program so that [children like Aaliyah] wouldn't be disadvantaged," she said.
Now Stokes is worried about Aaliyah falling behind before kindergarten. "I'm going to do all I can to make sure that doesn't happen. But I know that as she gets older, it's going to be like, 'OK mama, we've done that a thousand times, what else you got?' " Because of where Aaliyah's birthday falls, Stokes said, "we have three years of nothing, basically," before she goes to kindergarten.
"[Head Start] showed her how things go in a routine of learning. My daughter looked forward to that when the teacher came. When they get here, she's waiting at the door and swings it open, wanting to see in the bag at what new things they're going to do. She was excited about it."
Stokes has tried to explain to her daughter that the home-based program is ending and the Head Start teacher won't be coming around anymore. But Aaliyah "has not quite grasped that they're not coming back. She still looks for her to come. She'll say, 'Is she coming today?' She thinks, OK, they're just not coming today, not that they're gone forever. I tell her she's not coming back. She'll say, 'OK, but I'm getting a new teacher right?' "
"They started this whole thing with No Child Left Behind but now they're leaving them behind," Stokes said. "You wanted to make sure that they had a good head start and then you go and take it away. I don't understand that part at all."
Over the last several weeks, the Times has visited pre-K classrooms and spoken with parents, teachers, students and former students. People like Charlotte Franklin and her son Christopher, and Melissa Stokes and her daughter Aaliyah. We've heard about parents feeling more engaged in their children's education and about kids developing the skills they need to thrive in elementary school.
These stories we've heard do not provide answers to complicated budget questions. But as we debate those questions, the discussion could benefit from their voices.
• "When I go to work, I know she's in good hands and she's learning," Desirae Walker said of her 4-year-old daughter, Kylei, a Head Start student in Magnolia. "I'm hoping that it teaches her that education is important. I wanted her to have the experience of being around other children and get the experience of learning. And she actually likes it."
• "I thank God I was introduced to the Head Start program because it gives my children a chance to start out on an equal level," Ava Coleman said. Her 4-year-old son, Sava, is a Head Start student in Little Rock and her 6-year-old daughter, Zamori'a, has graduated from the Head Start program and will begin first grade this fall. "Just because someone is low income doesn't mean they don't want the best for their child. Everybody wants the best for their child."
Head Start identified that Sava suffered from speech delay and helped connect Coleman with a speech therapist. "They were able to identify some things that I didn't see, and so I really appreciate that early intervention," she said. "Once he goes to kindergarten we already have our foot in the door with his speech delay, and that will help him with his reading and writing and literature."
Coleman also credits Head Start with preparing Zamori'a for kindergarten, "not only academically but socially and emotionally. They helped equip me with parenting ideas and parenting tips to help me nurture her and educate her. Kids don't come with an instruction manual. Sometimes we need some help. If I need anything, I can reach out to them. The way they've helped me, it was like a family."
• "I was really impressed with some of those things that go beyond the classroom," said Kim Wyman, whose 4-year-old son, John Andrew, is a Head Start student in Rogers. "Some of those core things that make us who we are. It's important to me because I want John Andrew to be a good citizen and take responsibility for his actions, to be responsible and do good, and make all those right choices. That's something the teacher used that we've brought into our family: 'making good choices.' "
• "I couldn't afford to send my kids to pre-school, being a mom of four," said Crystal Sharp, whose son Charles is an ABC student in Southside, just outside of Batesville. "Having this opportunity has been a blessing to me because I know he's getting the quality education that he needs. And not only writing and learning the numbers and the alphabet, he's getting the social skills, which is so important for his age."
Rachel Mathews agreed. Her 5-year-old stepson, Jayden, is in the same program and her 6-year-old daughter, Alexis, graduated a year ago. "It's a great experience because of the structure," she said. "It better prepares them for what to expect." Having a good option for pre-school also allowed Mathews herself to go back to school, which she said would have been impossible without ABC.
• "When I think of Head Start, I think of the beginning," Darria Johnson, a former Head Start student now finishing her last semester at the University of Central Arkansas, where on a full scholarship she majored in music and minored in theater. "It starts you off on the right path. If I just jumped in to elementary school, I wouldn't have had the values that I had going to Head Start first."
"It helps the parents that are struggling and don't necessarily have the funds for private pre-school," she said. "It really helps their kids to have the same advantages as other kids."
Johnson remembers singing the alphabet and numbers songs and falling in love with music. Her teacher (who still keeps in touch with her today) asked whether she would like to sing at the Head Start graduation. Johnson chose her favorite Whitney Houston song, "You Can Count on Me."
"It was really good," she said. "I still have the tape! That was the first time I really ever sang in front of a big crowd. It really had a big impact on me. I've been singing ever since." This December, Johnson is heading to New York to audition for Broadway shows.
• Reola Perry and Shenitta Shepherd are teachers at the Head Start program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. "In kindergarten, the teacher's got 25 children and just her," Perry said. "The child may not know his numbers, his colors. And he may not know how to act, how to take turns. So the child may get called to the office or sent home, and he's missing all that they're teaching. Whereas [with Head Start] they've been taught. They're already prepared."
"It's very important at the cognitive level," Shepherd said. "They're getting that repetition of learning those letters, those numbers. When a child enters kindergarten and hasn't been to pre-K, they don't have that ground, that foundation."
The common thread running through these testimonies is a belief in the importance of reaching children early. Multiple people with experience in elementary schools said they could identify which kids in a kindergarten classroom had pre-school and which had not.
"The research is strong," said Rich Huddleston, executive director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. "For low-income and at-risk kids, if you don't get to them early and if they start school behind, it's less likely that they're going to catch up to their peers."
Brain development is happening rapidly before a child ever sets foot in kindergarten — neurologists have found that 85 percent of a child's intellect, personality and social skills are developed by age 5. A 2010 study from the Arkansas Legislative Taskforce on Reducing Poverty found that at-risk children enter kindergarten 18-36 months behind their peers (which also has ripple effects on other students as teachers try to catch them up).
A wealth of research suggests that high-quality early education can help to close that gap and can have a major impact on the future of low-income kids. Controlling for demographics, children that went to high-quality pre-K score higher on math, language and literacy tests when they enter kindergarten. They are less likely to require special education, less likely to repeat a grade, more likely to finish high school, and more likely to go to college. High-quality pre-K reduces the overall cost of educating a child in the K-12 system and can have long-lasting economic impacts for society on the workforce, the social welfare system, the criminal justice system and the healthcare system.
"People argue about the short-to-medium term outcomes of Head Start, but there are things that are clear and hold up over time," said Dr. Charles Feild, executive director of the UAMS Head Start program. "We know that for kids that have done Head Start there's less teen pregnancy, there's less crime, and there's a lower high-school dropout rate. If you want to look at return on investment — those are pretty good returns."
Studies have also attempted to quantify that return, and found that for every dollar invested in high-quality pre-school, the nation gets up to $7, or even more, back over the long term (better programs, with higher upfront costs, yield better returns). James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has found that "every dollar invested in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children produces a 7 percent to 10 percent return, per child, per year," which he notes would beat the stock market. In a 2010 letter to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Reform, Heckman wrote, "Early Head Start and Head Start are programs on which to build and improve — not to cut."
"The biggest bang for your bucks occurs in early childhood education compared to later grades," Huddleston said. "If you have limited dollars to spend on education, that should be where you put more of your limited dollars, especially for low-income, at-risk kids." Huddleston pointed out that Heckman's research found that the earlier in age the investment is made, the higher the return, suggesting that Arkansas is missing an opportunity with eligible low-income infants and toddlers; only 2 percent of them are covered by Early Head Start and ABC programs in the state.
Another key finding of Heckman and others is that the future education outcomes and return on investment from pre-K programs vary dramatically depending on the quality of the programs. "If you're going to make the investment, then do it right," DHS's Russell said. "If you have a little less intensity or duration, that [impacts] your results." Willy-nilly cuts to Head Start and flat funding at ABC don't just affect the number of slots available, they affect the quality of education offered to the children that do have slots.
Despite the potential return on investment, funding challenges for early childhood education are likely to continue.
"I don't see any evidence that people are aware of, understand, or just don't appreciate the value of helping low-income families and their children," Feild said. "You look at where our economy is — you have to have an education. Education has to start before kindergarten. We all know that. Some people are able to do that for their children. But a lot of our families still below the poverty level are working two jobs. I don't know what's going to happen to a generation of children."
Recent studies have shown that ABC has led to improved test scores in kindergarten readiness, as well as improved scores in vocabulary and math through the second grade and literacy through the third grade — but the legislature this session showed no interest in increasing funding. Just prior to the session, robo-calls went out testing the popularity of cutting the program.
"It's time to take stock in terms of the impacts of flat funding at the state level," Huddleston said. "Are we to the point now where you have to cut either the number of kids or you have to reduce the quality of your program to serve the same number of kids? Neither of which is good. Much less the issue of reaching all the kids you should be reaching in the first place."
Christopher, Charlotte Franklin's son — the one on the honor roll at eStem — is one of the kids that would be called "at-risk" in the studies about early childhood education. It's kids like him who we're talking about when we talk about cutting "slots."
Christopher is excited about starting third grade. "I'll get to learn about different things," he said. "I'm excited for new stuff. I'm going to make As and Bs."
"At Head Start, we learned math, writing, and literacy," he said. "It helped me a lot when I went to kindergarten. I like school. I want to go to college."
Christopher is a bright and self-assured child, and of course it would be an oversimplification to pin his success on one particular program. But he had access to pre-school, which his mother would have not have been able to afford without a public program, and the evidence suggests that experience could have an outsized impact on his life.
"For less privileged kids, it's a wonderful opportunity," Franklin said. "I hope they don't take it away."