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Losing Headstart: city, school board, and federal government fumble while poor neighborhoods howl

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For 25 years, North Lawndale's three- and four-year-olds have learned their ABCs at Howland Elementary, a public school at 1616 S. Spaulding. The preschool classes they took were part of the federally funded Headstart program, one of the few Great Society initiatives to survive nearly 20 years of mostly Republican rule. But come September there won't be any sing-alongs, story times, or field trips for the children of North Lawndale. Headstart at Howland--as well as at 42 other public schools--has been eliminated, and local activists don't even have Ronald Reagan to blame.

Instead the Headstart programs have fallen victim to a bitter dispute between Mayor Daley and school activists--a fray partially instigated by penny-pinching federal officials who complain that Headstart teachers at public schools make too much money. At their insistence, Daley agreed to gradually transfer 129 Headstart classes from the schools to private not-for-profit social agencies like the YMCA. By 1993 the public schools will be out of the Headstart business, a move that will ultimately save money and improve services, Daley says.

"Historically, Headstart has been based in not-for-profit agencies," says Maria Whelan, director of the Children's Services Division of the city's Department of Human Services. "It was made for them. By moving it back we might be better off."

But school activists fear the change will deprive some low-income neighborhoods of any preschool options and lower the quality of programs in other neighborhoods.

"They took Headstart out of Howland, but so far they haven't replaced it with another preschool program for the community," says Josephine Anderson, a veteran teacher at Howland. "Our kids need Headstart to compete. It tears at my soul to think that the city is going to let them fall behind."

The irony is that Headstart is one of the few programs for which the public schools receive fairly wide praise. It's based on the supposition that low-income kids need the same sort of preschool preparation that children from wealthier families pay good money to obtain. Enrollment is limited to the poor; tuition is free. And by most objective measures, the quality is high: classrooms are supervised by at least one teacher and two teacher's aides, and parental involvement is required. Studies show that children who enroll in Headstart will eventually perform better academically than their peers who don't.

"Headstart links low-income children to the world of education," says Susan Klonsky, a local education writer. "It means more than just throwing kids into a room; they learn valuable social skills. They learn to appreciate numbers and books. They learn to interact with others."

The program is funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and administered locally by the city's Human Services Department. "Last year we distributed about $34 million to run programs for 11,600 children at 221 different sites," says Whelan. Roughly 40 percent of the Headstart programs in Chicago are operated through the public schools; the other 60 percent are operated by private not-for-profit groups.

For years the public schools have been spending more money on the program than they got for it from the federal government. "The schools have been running Headstart at a deficit for the past five years," says Whelan. "For three of those years the city was able to pay off the deficit." But in 1989 the deficit reached $500,000. It's projected to reach $2.8 million for the upcoming school year and $3.4 million for the one after that--more than the city can handle.

The problem, according to the feds, is teachers' pay. The average public-school Headstart teacher receives about $45,000; in contrast, Headstart teachers in other programs make roughly $15,000. The feds warned the city that if the public-school salary differences weren't reduced, all Headstart funding would be lost.

In December 1989, Whelan and her boss, Human Services commissioner Daniel Alvarez, raised the issue with the school board.

"We offered the board all sorts of suggestions," says Whelan. "We suggested that they bring in younger teachers, newer to the job, who don't make as much money as some of the veterans. But for some reason they didn't go along with that." (Indeed, many City Hall observers privately insist that the board intentionally fills Headstart slots with veteran teachers so the federal government will pick up the higher salaries.)

After several meetings with Alvarez and Whelan, general superintendent Ted Kimbrough and the school board decided to phase out of the Headstart program.

Actually, the decision was made by the interim board--handpicked by Mayor Daley in accordance with the School Reform Act of 1988--at its last meeting, in September 1990. As with so many other controversial interim-board decisions, this one left the current board saddled with complaints. Roughly 200 protesters jammed the board's Pershing Road meeting room at one meeting in December.

Part of their anger had to do with the fact that none of them had been warned of the pending transfers. Despite all the rhetoric about local control and empowerment, it was yet another decision being made by central-office power brokers. In addition, they worried that the new Headstart sites would be hastily selected and poorly operated.

"The schools are already set up for Headstart; I have to wonder if that can be said of these new sites," says James Deanes, president of Parents' Community Council, a citywide coalition of school activists. "They'd have to install bathrooms, drinking fountains, and better lighting. That costs money. So in the name of saving money, we wind up spending more money to buy an inferior education. It doesn't make any sense."

Worse, the programs were closed before the city had selected all of its alternative sites--which leaves some low-income communities without any preschool programs this year.

At least that's the case with North Lawndale, the impoverished west-side community where Howland is located. "There's only one other Headstart program in our community, and it's full," says Anderson. "The city says, 'Trust us, we'll come up with something.' But why should we believe them? What assurances do we have? They treat Headstart like it was a luxury we should be grateful for. In the suburbs preschool is treated as a given. Why should the west side accept anything less?"

In the face of such complaints, the new school board held a series of hearings. In April they unanimously voted to reverse the interim board's decision.

"It didn't make sense to close Headstart," says board member Patricia Daley. "It wasn't going to cost much more than a few hundred thousand dollars to keep it. We weren't going to fire the Headstart teachers; they would have been transferred to other jobs in the system. We felt the money for Headstart could be found somewhere in the budget."

Kimbrough, however, balked at the new decision. The budget, he argued, was cut to the bone. He was already taking heat for closing several "underutilized" schools to eliminate an estimated budget deficit of $300 million. It would be irresponsible to continue Headstart without more money.

So in May Kimbrough reversed the board's reversal, once again sending Headstart out of the system. This time Patricia Daley did not have the votes on the board to stop him.

School activists were livid. In their rage many of them were convinced that the Headstart transfer was part of a wider conspiracy hatched by Mayor Daley to privatize public education. How else to explain the mayor's reluctance to fight for more federal Headstart funds? Or his eagerness to see the program shifted away from the schools? Or his willingness to tacitly endorse the not-for-profits' abysmally low teacher salaries? Daley, the activists contend, does not seriously attack the problems that plague public education; he only exploits them for political gain.

"The people who send their kids to public schools didn't vote for Daley, so he doesn't care about them," says Deanes. "You heard what he said in his [inaugural] speech. He's for a voucher program. That's a code word that means he won't support the schools."

Beyond that, Daley wants to use Headstart "as a source of patronage to reward all those black preachers who supported him in the last election," says Deanes. "You watch and see how many black churches get those Headstart contracts." Kimbrough goes along with this plan because he's Daley's puppet, Deanes argues.

Kimbrough and City Hall officials dismiss such accusations as the desperate rhetoric of anti-Daley zealots looking for a cause. "I want to stay above this political debate, but I feel compelled to dispel some of these lies and distortions," says Whelan. "We won't be using Headstart as a patronage plum, and we won't be awarding it to [just] any old storefront churches; there will be a vigorous screening process. The social service agencies who operate Headstart do a splendid job. In many cases they do better than the schools. At least they have generated fewer complaints over the years."

Whelan also says the state has pledged to pay for preschool programs in low-income areas. "Kimbrough has assured us that once he gets his state money, he will open prekindergarten classes in all public schools that have lost their Headstart programs," says Whelan. "As a result of these transfers we're getting more, not less."

The protesters counter that they have no guarantee that the state will keep its promise--at least not in time to keep Howland from being without a preschool for a while.

"Whenever we face a crisis, it seems the only solution anyone can think of is to shut more schools," says Anderson. "We need more education, not less. It's time our leaders started thinking about the children."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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