In Mississippi, Will Competition Cure Head Start—or Kill It?

The only town in Mississippi's George County is about to find out whether its Head Start center will get more federal funding or have to shut down

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Sarah Garland

Academics are mixed with playing, singing and dancing at the Singing River Head Start program in Lucedale, Miss.

On a sunny afternoon in October, the staff at the Singing River Head Start center in Lucedale, Miss., put on a show. It was Head Start Awareness Month (designated by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s), and they wanted to mark the occasion. Children filed into the hall and watched enthralled as the educational manager, Tina Brown, led her all-female staff in a raucous rendition of a song, “Every Child Should Have a Head Start,” that felt more tent revival than schoolhouse. Hands clapped, feet stomped and the children sang along when they got to the chorus: “Let’s keep Head Start rolling.”

Despite their enthusiasm, the staff here has little reason to celebrate. In late 2011, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the federal agency that runs the Head Start program, cracked down on Singing River and 131 other centers in the U.S. as part of a new nationwide project to improve the quality of early childhood education. The agency has estimated that every year about one third of Head Start programs being evaluated under new rules will fail to meet a set of quality markers. (The nation’s 1,600 Head Start programs are reviewed every three years, so not every center has been subjected to the new rules yet.) Those falling short, like Singing River, must compete for grants that used to be reissued almost automatically. In December, Singing River will find out whether it will receive more federal funding or if it will be forced to close next year.

(MORE: Why Mississippi’s Students Start Behind—And Stay Behind)

The hope is that a jolt of competition will cure some of the problems facing the nearly $8 billion Head Start program, which was started in the 1960s as a preschool program for children living in poverty and now serves about 900,000 low-income children from birth to age five.

Much of the concern about Head Start quality stems from a federal study begun in 2000 that found disappearing gains for Head Start children. In the study, children enrolled in Head Start made significant academic progress compared to low-income children who weren’t enrolled, even though many of those non-Head Start kids attended other preschool programs. But after first grade, the academic differences between the groups leveled off.

(MORE: Read Joel Klein on why it’s time to ax Head Start)

Republicans in Congress have used the study to call for reducing funding for the program. To keep this from happening, the Obama administration is working on a set of reforms to improve Head Start outcomes including the use of competition, a strategy the White House also favors in the K-12 sector. With its Race to the Top competition, for example, the administration encouraged states and nonprofit organizations to propose new reforms and gave out federal dollars to the ones with the best applications. In the case of Head Start, though, the possibility that some centers will be shut down—and that local nonprofits or even for-profit companies could be awarded the grant money—takes the administration’s embrace of competition to a new level.

“We are introducing unprecedented accountability in the Head Start program,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a statement last year, when the new rules were first announced. “We owe Head Start children the highest quality services available to prepare them for school and for life.”

Going forward, Head Start centers must meet seven conditions that ACF considers markers of quality—including setting goals for children’s school readiness and receiving high ratings on classroom evaluations performed by an outside contractor—or they will have to reapply for their grants in open competition.

(MORE: Read Kayla Webley on The Preschool Wars)

But for the first round, however, ACF did not use the classroom evaluations or academic goals to review programs—instead, the agency used such criteria as whether a program had been marked “deficient” on at least one Head Start requirement in its latest review. For instance, one of the largest Head Start grantees in the nation, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, which serves 120,000 families, could lose its grant over “administrative deficiencies” with its workers’ health insurance. The Los Angeles County Office of Education, another large agency, might lose its grant over misfiled paperwork.

ACF did not respond to a question about why Singing River was placed in competition. But according to Singing River’s director, Billy Knight, the main reason it could lose its funding is an incident in 2010 in which a bus driver allowed a child to get off the bus in a church parking lot before his mother arrived. The mother filed a complaint. Knight suspended the bus driver and a bus monitor without pay, and held training sessions for the staff. Although he doesn’t deny that the incident was serious, he says his program has rectified the problem and doesn’t deserve to be driven out of business as a result. “It had nothing to do with our instruction,” Knight said. “It had nothing to do with the quality of programs.”

Injecting competition into the system

Competition is not completely new to Head Start. “There’s always been a process to help programs improve, or if it was determined that they were not going to meet the standards, to help other programs step in,” said Nita Thompson, director of the Mississippi Head Start Association. But previously, programs risked losing their grants only if they had egregious safety problems, repeat violations or serious financial troubles. Closing a program over instructional quality was nearly unheard of.

(MORE: Will New Sex-Education Requirements Lower the Teen Pregnancy Rate in Mississippi?)

Responses to Head Start’s grant competition have been mixed, but mostly positive among early childhood advocates. “To give other people the opportunity to come in with some creative and innovative approaches, but still keep the flavor and spirit of Head Start, I think that’s a good thing,” said Thompson. “When Head Start is done right, there’s nothing better.”

In Lucedale, people like the concept of injecting competition into the system but worry the current process could derail a program with a good track record. Douglas Luce is the president of the Century Bank, a regional institution, and a former board member at Singing River. “Competition makes everybody better, but I think you better make sure the program you’re messing with is actually bad,” he said. “I can tell you this one is a good one.”

Singing River is a small program that serves only 159 students. The center is located amid pine forests and cotton fields down a country road about 15 minutes outside of Lucedale, the only incorporated town in George County. Work here is scarce; the middle-class families who live in a scattering of new subdivisions tend to commute to Mobile, Ala., or elsewhere on the Gulf Coast. For those without a college degree, the biggest employer in town is Walmart, Knight said. Most of the children at Singing River are white, but there is also a significant number of black students and a handful of Hispanic children.

The one-story building is a former 1930s high school with no central air conditioning, but teachers have made the place cheerful with painted murals and student art. They have also updated how they teach. Terra Johnson, 40, has taught at Singing River for 15 years and attended the center as a child. “We do a lot more now getting them prepared for kindergarten,” she said. “When I first started, we taught 10 letters. Now we teach 26. We’re doing Spanish, counting to 100. It’s a whole lot more.”

On a recent fall day, her students spent a few minutes of downtime after an afternoon nap practicing simple arithmetic problems. Camila Cristobal, who just turned 5, successfully added 5 and 3 together by drawing dots next to the equation and counting up to 8. She declared that her favorite things about school were math and homework, when she practices writing her letters.

Teachers at Singing River say they try to make academics fun. Nearly every activity involves singing, dancing or playing games. “You have to create a vibrant, loving environment,” said Ammie Osborne, a teacher who has spent five years at Singing River and sent her daughter here.

Although an ACF spokesman would not confirm whether Singing River had submitted the only grant application for Mississippi’s George County, Knight said the competition has already been helpful in some ways. “This is an opportunity to change and do something different,” he said. Singing River has increased its communication with the school district, for instance, to ensure its curriculum is connected to what children will learn in kindergarten. The center also hopes to start tracking outcomes with local schools to see if Head Start alumni actually perform better than their peers.

At the same time, however, the center has had to devote extra resources and time in preparing its application—time it might otherwise have spent on fundraising or training. To improve, what Singing River really needs is more money, according to teachers, board members and administrators. The program’s budget has stayed flat for years, Knight said, even as costs have risen for necessities like milk, classroom supplies and gas for school buses. Under federal regulations, the center must raise at least 20 percent of its budget from the community, which it struggles to do because of the depth of poverty and lack of industry in the area. “We have enough trouble trying to sustain the program year after year,” said Chris Smith, a car salesman who serves on the Singing River board of directors and who sent his two sons to the center. “Going through the re-compete process, I really don’t feel that based on our record it was merited.”

People in Lucedale have another question about making Singing River fight for its grant: Who would take over Lucedale’s Head Start program if Singing River is closed? “I can’t think of anybody in George County who would want to take this on,” said Terri Nyman, special education director for the George County public schools. In other states, large nonprofits and even for-profit companies have moved in to take over struggling Head Start centers in the past. But with its 1,500 regulations and tight budget, Head Start tends to be a stressful, money-losing endeavor. Lucedale is so remote and financially strapped that locals wonder what sort of organization—if any—would bother to compete for the grant. “You have to be passionate,” said Osborne. “Hopefully a new program would come in that’s just as good.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.