In November 2011, President Obama announced stricter financing standards for the federal government's Head Start program,
"If a program isn't giving children the support they need to be ready for school," he said at the time, "then other organizations will be able to compete for the grant. We will take money from programs that don't work and put it into programs that do."
Last week, that's just what the government did here on Cape Ann, awarding Gloucester's Pathways for Children a five-year Head Start federal grant with an annual budget of approximately $2.3 million, after it won out over five local organizations competing for the contract to expand and now serve a total of 14 North Shore communities from Cape Ann to Boxford.
For the Emerson Avenue-based organization, the grant is an official acknowledgement of the high standards its management and staff has strived hard to achieve and maintain.
It not only reflects well on Pathway's performance, but on the federal government's tough new stance on Head Start. Since its launch in 1964, Head Start has received in excess of $160 billion dollars in federal funding. But the program came under fire back in 2007, when Congress passed a law aimed at weeding out Head Start centers that weren't up to par.
Named the "Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act," it ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to determine whether each Head Start agency was meeting the needs of the children and families it serves, and directed that agencies that failed to meet the government's standards would have to "recompete" for renewal of their funding.
Pathways' Chief Operating Officer Caroline Haines noted Friday that Pathways' Head Start program had consistently rated great reviews from the federal government.
That seemed to make it a viable contender, she said, for the contract, which went out for competitive bidding early last summer. That came after Northeast Behavioral Health, which ran eight Head Start programs on the North Shore, would relinquish its federal funding. That agency is a wing of Northeast Health System, the parent corporation of Gloucester's Addison Gilbert Hospital.
Although there was no evidence that North East Behavioral Health's Head Start Program "was not working," Haines said that "there had been mergers and changes which made Northeast decide that Head Start was not really part of their mission."
Northeast Behavioral Health, a private, nonprofit Peabody-based human service agency, formerly known as CAB Health and Recovery Services and Health & Education Services, provides mental health, addiction treatment, community education and prevention services, and had administered Head Start programs throughout the North Shore.
Haines says the new grant "will basically enable us to take over the programs that had been relinquished, serving (in addition to an existing base of 375 children on Cape Ann) an additional 232 children in the communities of Peabody, Salem, Danvers, Beverly, Topsfield, Hamilton, Wenham, Middleton and Boxford."
Pathways' Gloucester Head Start program will not be affected by the additional commitments, says Haines, which will be administered from a new office in Beverly. Part of the grant, she adds, includes a large, newly renovated $2 million center on Cabot Street in Beverly with seven class rooms, as well as two "satellite" centers in the Peabody public schools, and a site to be determined in Salem.
The contentious partisan debate that in recent years has threatened Head Start funding, is due partly due to the perception that Head Start funds were being squandered on lavish staff salaries and benefits. That's a notion Haines dismisses.
"Let me tell you," she says, "the average annual starting salary for Head Start teachers is $24,000;" current job sites post annual average pay for starting teachers in Massachusetts at $43,000.
Government guidelines for the training of Head Start teachers requires associate degrees in a related field by 2013. Pathways Head Start, says Haines, require teachers have bachelor's degrees.
Haines, who begain her career at Pathways as a Head Start teacher 29 years ago, says it's difficult to compete with public school salaries, but that Pathways' staff are motivated by more by the children than money.
"We know," she says, "that the most important time for developing a child's brain is the first three years of life. Research shows young children's brains develop 700 synapses (neural connections that transmit information) every second.
"If a child doesn't have the proper nurturing, is in a stressful home environment," she says, "the architecture of that child's brain will be affected, and that child is at a disadvantage for life."
The children of low-income families lag far behind children from average middle-class homes, statistics show. The mission of Head Start, Haines says, begins with the belief that all children deserve an equal chance.
"We really believe in giving this to a child," she says, "so they can become all that they can become."
Joan Mackenzie can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3457, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.