Nothing reminds Edith Rivera of her school days like the smell of steamed broccoli. Her parents, both immigrants from Mexico, struggled to support their three daughters -- their diet often consisted of beans and eggs.
So a highlight of the Head Start government educational program she attended were the warm full meals she was rarely served at home.
Now an adult, Rivera, 30, has returned to her Head Start roots -- as an employee. On days they serve broccoli, she is reminded how fundamental the program was for her success.
“Head start was able to help in giving my dad the opportunity to start his own company,” she said about the child care.
Head Start is one of the most largest community assistance programs the government offers, given its size and cost. And even though the national conversation turns toward improving education and investing in early education to better prepare children for college, the Head Start program finds itself on shaky ground, struggling to stay financially stable.
Federal funding is declining and a study released in December reinvigorated opponents’ calls for eliminating the expensive and large program when results indicated the program may not leave as much of a lasting impact as expected.
The study results strengthened the argument of some conservative groups, which have traditionally targeted Head Start as an ineffective and wasteful government program.
“We now have evidence – unequivocal evidence – that head start does not work for low-income children,” said Lindsey Burke, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy institute.
Head Start serves the most disenfranchised students. Nearly 90 percent of the families enrolled were below the federal poverty limit. For a family of four, that meant they were earning less than $24,000. Of the children enrolled, 63 percent are non-Hispanic, about 30 percent of the children identify as African-American and 37 percent are Hispanic, the fastest growing population in the program.
Head Start began as an eight-week summer program in the mid-1960s for 561,000 children at a cost of $96.4 million, just one part of what Lyndon B. Johnson called the "war on poverty."
It continued growing and by 1985 its budget surpassed $1 billion dollars for a little more than 452,080 children who were enrolled. As of 2011, the program served 964,430 children at a coast of more than $7 billion.
Rivera’s family was in a qualifying income bracket for Head Start. Her mother ironed shirts in a uniform factory until she was injured and her father worked in construction pouring cement. Both came from Mexico. They lived in a town near Houston, Texas, in a house with limited heating and in winters it could get so cold, they’d have to sleep elsewhere.
Rivera didn’t speak English and neither did her parents. But at Head Start, she recalls her teacher, Ms. Diaz, following her around making sure she was speaking and listening to the English used in class, a move that gave her confidence in kindergarten.
If students like Rivera had boosts in confidence or increased language abilities by the time they entered third grade, they didn’t show up in a study that the federal government released in December. In that study, it appeared that the Head Start students had no significant advantage over non-Head Start students.
But some academics cite flaws in the study’s design, which they said ultimately render it inconclusive. For example, some students in the control group against which the Head Start students were compared to attended Head Start, which would skew the results, according to Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
Advocates said there are benefits that can’t be measured by the study.
Head Start students “have healthier life habits,” said Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit Head Start advocacy organization. “A good study would have said these are the elements that had those results as opposed to mushing out those results.”
Regardless of that study, the ballooning costs of the program and a sluggish economy led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to find ways to streamline it. As calls for cutting funding for Head Start grew louder, some programs were asked to reapply for funding, a new move by the federal government they call "recompetition."
The idea was that programs would reevaluate, among other things, the quality of their services. But that idea seemed to fall short when esteemed programs such as those offered by Columbia University and Bank Street landed on a tenuous list for administrative violations made by their overseeing agencies.
“One way or another people have been swept into recompetition, even programs that are high quality,” said Vinci. “That has created a lot of unhappiness.”
One facility that was impacted is Community Action, Inc. of central Texas, where Rivera works. It is one of the oldest programs in the country and one that Head Start activists view as exemplary, though the federal government hasn’t formally recognized.
It was established 48 years ago and today has a 57 percent Latino population among participants, said executive director Suad Hooper. Their goal, she said, is to break the poverty cycle by first developing a strong emotional environment where the kids feel safe and secure. Rivera’s role is to help parents engage in education by helping them navigate cultural conflicts and giving them ways to prioritize and support education.
Twelve years ago, a panel of health professionals assembled by the program reviewed procedure and decided that a yearly tuberculosis exam would be a good idea but requiring a yearly physical to check temperatures, heart rates and blood pressure wasn’t necessary for all staff. That move more than a decade ago landed the program on the list to resubmit their paperwork and they did, successfully recapturing the grant.
“I think there was a disconnect and not everything was taken into consideration,” said Hooper, adding that while bypassing the yearly screening may technically violate code it was reviewed by a panel and determined to maintain safety while being more cost effective. “The implementation of recompetition was a little rushed.”
Despite the streamlining that individual Head Start programs are undergoing and the federal government is encouraging, it has been one of many items rattled by the federal sequester budget-cut move.
According to some estimates, the cuts will leave 70,000 kids nationwide out of Head Start this fall. While some funding may be reinstated in the next fiscal year, it isn’t likely they will be totally restored.
And that, Rivera said, could be devastating to the families she is currently working with in the Head Start program. For her family, the child care, health support and meals they received through Head Start was one reason her father was able to start his own business and get the family above the federal poverty level.
Rivera said she always did well in school but her parents' work ethic stuck with her so after high school she eschewed college for a job. She is now finishing college and is expecting to earn a bachelor’s degree in social psychology, which she hopes will help her better understand the parents she works with in the program that she said helped her.
As a child, it was where she learned English and as an adult, it is her employer and her motivating factor to finish her studies.
“When I came back to the program, that’s when I realized the big deal it was to me,” she said. “It helped me get my life on track.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.