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Head Start is a top priority for Oregon legislative leaders

Original Source | The Oregonian
By Bill Graves, June 17, 2009

The Legislature's proposed budget cuts will hit every level of education, but some lawmakers hope to ease the impact on Oregon's Head Start preschools.

Mykell works on a project

Brent Wojahn/The Oregonian
MyKell Hall, 5, works on a writing and drawing project in an Albina Head Start class in North Portland on Wednesday. Children in the center also learn Spanish. Legislative leaders say they are working to minimize cuts in the preschool program, which they say delivers a bigger return on spending because it helps children succeed in school.

Early childhood education "is a huge priority for me personally and for the House," said House Speaker Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone. He predicted Oregon Head Start will come out of the budget battle less scathed than public schools and colleges.

Democratic leaders are looking this week for additional money for Oregon Head Start, a preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families modeled after federal Head Start. Leaders also are weighing whether they can come up with $1 million to launch an Early Head Start program for children from birth to age 3.

Albina Early Head Start teacher works with 3-year-oldsBrent Wojahn/The Oregonian
Albina Early Head Start teacher Tyshun Brewer works with 3-year-olds Renald Desir (center) and Jacy Jointer (right) as they make shapes from play dough. The federally funded Early Head Start programs serve about 3 percent of eligible children in Oregon from birth to age 3.


They want to invest as much as possible in preschool, Hunt said, because there's "a huge return on the investment."

Research by educators, economists, brain scientists and think tanks shows high-quality preschool yields returns ranging from $2 to $17 for each dollar spent over the long run. That's because children coming out of preschools have a better foundation to succeed in school and are less likely to quit, need remediation or commit crimes.

"The most productive thing we can do in a tight situation is to make sure we fund Head Start at a reasonable level," said Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Ways and Means education subcommittee.

The Ways and Means proposed budget would give Oregon Head Start about $99 million for 2009-11, slightly more than this biennium, but not enough to prevent a reduction of about 700 kids. Monroe said legislators probably can find more money.

Oregon advocates, organized in a coalition called Ready for School, are lobbying to protect Head Start and to launch an Early Head Start program. The latter could put the state in a competitive position for money that President Barack Obama wants to invest in Early Head Start.

"What we're looking at is building the infrastructure in our system for birth to (age) 5 education for our most at-risk kids," said Swati Adarkar, executive director of the Children's Institute in Portland.

The Albina Early Head Start and Head Start programs at the McCormack-Matthews Center in North Portland exemplify what advocates want to see more of.

In teacher Tyshun Brewer's class Wednesday morning at the center, seven 2- and 3-year-olds count out loud in Spanish as they cut out shapes in play dough or use small rods to fish for plastic carp in a tray of water. Earlier they named triangles, squares and other shapes and listened to Brewer read them a story.

This Early Head Start class is one of three at the center that operate year-round from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Some of the students in Brewer's class, such as Dexter Foster, 3, entered the program as babies. They'll soon advance to one of the center's three regular Head Start classes, where they'll begin to learn how to read and write.

School districts are eager to get students from the school because they are so well-prepared, said Elaine Harrison, director of the Albina Early Head Start program, which serves 300 children in eight centers.

"We've had some who do extremely well," she said of former graduates. "Some are reading at a higher level. Some are ahead of their peers in many ways ... socially and academically."

The Legislature in 2007 put an additional $39 million into Oregon Head Start, nearly doubling the number of children served by the state to 6,550. The federal program in Oregon serves 6,000 more children.

Still, Oregon lacks space in its Head Start schools for at least 5,400 more eligible kids. The federal Early Head Start in Oregon serves about 638 children - less than 3 percent of those eligible.

Thirty-three other states expanded their preschool programs last year, collectively increasing enrollment by 108,000 children. Obama has put $800 million in his 2010 budget and another $4 billion in stimulus money to help states expand and improve preschools. He's urging states to build comprehensive birth to five early childhood systems.

But launching a new Early Head Start program in Oregon during the current budget squeeze is "a very difficult sell," Hunt said. "If there was anything we would add a new program for, it would be for Head Start."

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