Our urban public schools are critically inadequate to meet the needs of the children of poverty. This seems like a harsh judgment, but it is borne out by a recent follow-up study of Head Start children. Within as short a time as 4 to 5 months after school begins, the gains many of these children had registered in the Head Start program had been nullified. Indeed, the disappointment and discouragement of the slum school classroom caused many of them to fall further behind than children who had not had the Head Start experience. The readiness and receptivity they had gained had been crushed by the broken promises of first grade.
If this condition is not remedied immediately, the achievements of Head Start will be buried in the mediocrity of our slum schools. Therefore, I propose that public school systems, especially in urban slum areas, begin immediately to put into practice the lessons we have learned in Head Start; to make certain that the benefits of the Head Start program are not lost.
This sounds like an impossible task but it need not be accomplished all at once. Any urban school system with imagination and a reasonable use of resources could, however, tackle the job one grade at a time; first grade one year; second grade the next, and so on, profiting from the experience gained as each grade is changed and modified to incorporate the Head Start concept.
What is needed is a projection of Head Start into the primary grades which we might call Operation Keep Moving. Head Start, as we have discovered can be of impermanent value unless the regular school experience excites and motivates the child to the same degree as the preschool program. Once the cutting edge is dulled and blunted, progress can be slow and even be reversed. Head Start must "keep moving" if the child is to succeed.
Six basic steps must be taken if Operation Keep Moving is to be effective. They are all based on the strengths and innovations of Head Start itself.
First, there must be an across-the-board reduction in the ratio of teachers to pupils, grade by grade. It is not true that the more competent the teacher, the larger the number of learners he or she can teach. Any teacher's effectiveness is diminished by having more pupils in the classroom than can be accommodated with the time and attention available. The Head Start ratio of one teacher for every fifteen children should become a national grade school standard.
Second, the ratio of adults to children in the classroom should be increased by utilizing new sources of educational manpower: teachers' aides, sub-professionals, auxiliaries in education and volunteers whose services are available in every community. Head Start has proved that the very presence of interested adults does much to motivate the child and give him an incentive to succeed.
Third, a program of tutorial assistance should be established through which older students, high school or college, in Neighborhood Youth Corps and work-study programs, volunteers from established youth groups, VISTA, retired professionals, etc., can participate. The primary grades are not too early to begin instilling good work habits and reinforcing the classroom experience through the use of tutors, especially those drawn from the youth of the neighborhood itself.
Fourth, adequate supplies of all needed physical properties should be provided - books, films, television, educational toys. There should be a full complement of electronic learning aids which have proved themselves effective in enhancing learning processes of poor children.
Fifth, parental involvement should be maximized in every public school. This does not mean traditional parent-teacher organizations meeting in the auditorium at night, but neighborhood councils and community associations which will find the schools open to them during the day. The neighborhood should be drawn into the school so both child and parent can feel that learning is a basic part of their total environment.
Sixth, a training program should be initiated for a new career in education - the child development specialist. These specialists would work exclusively in the early primary grades, focusing on diagnosing obstacles and blocks hampering progress and recommending the intervention of other professionals: psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, reading consultants, etc. as needed.
There are, of course, other important steps the community must take to improve its program for disadvantaged children, but these six are fundamental. Medical services, nutritional programs, family counseling must all be brought up to Head Start standards.
If school systems will pick up the challenge and keep moving, one year at a time, the results will inevitably be a revolution in education systems from pre-school through pre-college. I feel sure that if the pressure to effect this change is great enough, funds will be available from the federal and state governments to make this revolution possible.
From Head Start to Keep Moving; to Upward Bound; to college work-study, we can create an educational process which will give the disadvantaged child in our nation a chance to set his sights on the highest educational level within his power to attain.