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Unheralded Bipartisan Success

As Washington Limps Along, a Head Start Program in Florida Is Thriving

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.--When federal officials inspected this city’s Head Start program five years ago, they found moldy classrooms, exposed wires, leaking sewage, a sagging roof and trash-strewn playgrounds littered with safety hazards. A teacher had jerked a student so hard she dislocated the girl’s shoulder.

The visitors were so alarmed at the neglect that they began changing diapers themselves. What they did next was even more unusual: They fired the nonprofit running the program, the Urban League, and chose a new one.

Now run by Lutheran Services Florida, Jacksonville’s Head Start program has cleaner classrooms, more teachers with college degrees, a full-time teaching coach and rising scores on the federal government’s main yardstick of classroom quality. Once in the lowest 10 percent nationwide, Jacksonville now has scores that approach the national average.

The change reflects an unheralded trend: Head Start, the country’s biggest preschool program, is getting better.

More than a decade after Congress imposed new standards on Head Start, a third of its partners have been forced to compete for funding that was once virtually automatic, and the share of classrooms ranked good or excellent has risen more than fourfold. With a $10 billion budget and nearly 900,000 low-income students, Head Start is a behemoth force in early education, in an age when brain science puts ever more emphasis on early learning.

Billy G. Shelton Sr. ..To read more, subscribe to the blackchronicle newspaper

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