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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Edward Zigler : Head Start's Architect Reflects on Building Achievements

April 04, 1993|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is the author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" (NAL/Dutton). She interviewed Edward Zigler at Cal State University, Chico

CHICO, CALIF. — Edward Zigler shakes his head when he thinks about the civil unrest in Los Angeles. One of the architects of the Head Start program for pre-school children, he feels that so much could be done to give young people a stake in society if they received attention early--if they had health care, if they had good educations, if they had hope that they could achieve.

"Where does this violence and all the horrors that you saw start? It doesn't start when these kids are teen-agers," says Zigler, who is Sterling Professor of psychology at Yale University and director of Yale's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. He is committed to putting his knowledge to work in the community, and it's clear to him that such violence "starts very, very young. . . . If you really want to do something about rioters, the solution is not to arrest thousands of people. It's too late then. . . . It's those early years that we have to impact."

Zigler worked on planning Head Start when it began as a hurry-up summer program in 1965, as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. Later, as chief of the children's bureau in the Nixon Administration, Zigler helped save Head Start when it was targeted for extinction in 1970, after a critical report questioned its effectiveness. He still champions the program, which now enrolls 621,000 children and costs the federal government a little more than $2 billion a year. With co-author Susan Muenchow, Zigler has just written "Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Education Experiment," recently published by Basic Books.

He lives outside New Haven with his wife, Bernice. His son, Scott, 29, lives in New York. At 63, Zigler travels extensively to speak about providing child care and family services through the nation's schools. Although he says he considers his work his avocation, he does confess to considering himself a "very proficient poker player" as well.

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Question: What would be the single most important thing that President Bill Clinton could do for Head Start?

Answer: Create a Head Start program for children from 0-to-3 years old. We have to get away from this inoculation model of Head Start--the idea that if children are in a program for one year, that will be enough to make their lives better. No program, no matter how good, is sufficient in one year to affect the growth trajectory of children. Children are growing up in much more cruel poverty today than they were when Head Start began.

We should have not a one-year program, but a series of programs that dovetail. Why should we wait until children are four years old, as we do now? We should invent a brand new Head Start.

. . . You could have one program with prenatal care and early education; then the Head Start we have now, and then, when children get to school in kindergarten and first and second grade, you should have a follow through with the same variety of services--health care, parental involvement and so on.

Q: What else should the President do?

A: Quit playing a numbers game with Head Start, in thinking that you assess it by what percentage of the children that are eligible are in the program. Head Start should be assessed by the quality of the program. . . And unfortunately, after 28 years of Head Start, we still have not brought every center up to some minimum level of quality. We started it too fast. We started it too big. We've tried to get on top of the quality issue. The Reagan Administration starved Head Start for many, many years. President George Bush, to his credit, championed the program and put money into it, but, look, Head Start was always a program for 3- to-5 (-year-olds), but because they're so committed to what they call "full funding"--well, the easiest way to full fund is to say, "We'll only give it to 4-year-olds." What happens to the 3's? What happens to the 5's?

Q: Should Head Start be a universal early childhood education program?

A: ...What I'd like to see is universal programs for all children, and then do something extra for poor people who need an extra hand up. . . . We'll get in there with an earlier program, which we already have called parent and child centers (for babies up to 3 years old.)

Q: Is there money to do this on a universal basis?

A: There is not enough money. . . . What we have to probably do during these tight times is . . . introduce a fee system. . . . Let the government pay for poor kids, and let middle-class people have the services if they want them, calibrated to their income.

But where are our priorities? We keep saying you have to invest in human capital. Do we want to compete with the Japanese and West Germans or not? Investing in human capital means good health for our young children. It means preschool education for all our children.

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