Leaders of Orange County’s Head Start program for low-income preschool children, already so overbooked that they placed more than 1,500 needy children on a waiting list this year, now wonder how they will cope with a federally mandated expansion of the program.
Last week, on the 29th anniversary of the federally funded anti-poverty program, President Clinton signed a bill designed to extend Head Start services to children under 3 years old and to pregnant women. Previously, only 3- and 4-year-olds whose families met certain income guidelines were eligible to enroll.
But now, federal officials want to expand the scope of the preschool program, which has received nationwide praise for its achievements. Although details are still being worked out, Head Start will eventually be required to teach parenting skills to pregnant women and provide day care for newborns.
The program is being expanded because research shows that the sooner some families receive assistance, the greater the chance that they will lead healthy, productive lives.
Local officials applaud the expansion of the program but are not optimistic that they will receive the federal funds required for such a major undertaking.
“We agree it’s wonderful to get to the family early on,” said Ana Jacquette, deputy director of Orange County Head Start. “But we can barely serve the 4-year-olds.”
Nationwide, 730,000 children were enrolled in Head Start programs in 1994. In 1995, $4 billion will be spent on Head Start, enabling another 100,000 children to benefit from the program. About 3% of the $700-million increase over last year’s budget is expected to go to pregnant women and children under 3.
Head Start gives children from poor families a leg up by helping prepare them for kindergarten. The program includes everything from making sure the children eat two square meals a day--the only food that some of them may get--to teaching them social skills. They are also given medical checkups, to make sure that they are healthy and to detect signs of child abuse.
An increasing number of the children were born to mothers who used drugs, are victims of child abuse or come from broken homes.
Orange County Head Start officials say it is too soon to tell exactly how the new federal law will affect local programs, because they have not yet received the official guidelines. Many applaud the principles embodied in the new law, but simultaneously express concern over how they will be able to serve more children.
In a reflection of the poor economy of recent years, Orange County’s Head Start program has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, Head Start serves 3,263 children--double the number enrolled five years ago.
Next year, officials plan to make room for another 260 children and will experiment with operating a full-day program and an evening program.
But during the 1993-1994 school year, one of every four children who applied for admission to the county’s 40 Head Start programs was put on the waiting list, Orange County Head Start officials said.
In order to be eligible for Head Start, children must turn 4 by Dec. 2 in that school term. Total income for a family of four must not exceed $1,233 per month.
Several studies have shown that children who go through Head Start perform better in kindergarten.
Parents like Alfonso Rossano have noticed dramatic improvements in their children’s behavior. Rossano’s 5-year-old foster child, Malia Simonisi, attends the Head Start School on Grand Avenue in Santa Ana.
“My daughter needed a lot of help because she was a coke baby,” said Rossano, 59, who has three adult children in their 20s and has cared for Malia since she was 3 months old.
“She has a very short attention span, so she needed a lot of individual help,” he said of Malia. “Before, it was, ‘me, me, me,’ but now she’s become a lot more sociable,” Rossano said.
Rossano spent a recent morning volunteering at his daughter’s Head Start school. Seated at a pint-sized wooden table, he supervised the children as they busily chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro with plastic knives in a weekly cooking class designed to help them learn about nutrition and improve their motor skills.
Their painstaking efforts were later transformed into guacamole for that day’s lunch.
The Head Start School on Grand Avenue, one of the oldest of the Orange County programs, is run by the Council of Affiliated Negro Organizations. The program served 276 children this year, with another 48 on the waiting list.
The program is seeking $198,000 in funds from Orange County Head Start in order to accommodate another 68 children.
Program director Alta Manning, who has worked with Head Start for nearly 30 years, remembers the early days when it was all but impossible to find affordable space for Head Start programs and officials depended on the good graces of neighborhood churches.
But today there are more disturbing problems, like the host of social ills that are reflected in the backgrounds of the children.
“We’re seeing a lot of foster parents, grandparents and child abuse,” said Manning, 59, who is raising a grandson herself. “It’s been increasing with the economy the way it is.
Those troubles seem all but forgotten in a classroom where a group of children danced uninhibitedly, following their teacher’s energetic lead. Betty Collins, a 62-year-old grandmother, stood at the center of the group. Like Rossano, Collins volunteers once a week.
The retired special education therapist raises her granddaughter, born to Collins’ daughter during a stay in state prison. Collins has raised the child since she was 2 days old.
“Head Start really helps them socially and makes them feel good about themselves,” Collins said. “And that’s the most important thing.”
Orange County’s 40 Head Start programs serve 4-year-olds from low-income families. An overview of whom the programs try to serve:
* Enrollment: Currently, 3,263 children countywide.
* Eligibility: 4-year-olds whose parents meet federal income guidelines.
* Waiting list: In the 1993-94 school year, 1,571 children were waiting for spaces in the program.
* Expansion: Funding for 260 more children is expected in the 1994-95 school year.
* Funding: Orange County spent $18 million in the 1993-94 school year on Head Start programs.
Source: Head Start