For the children in Joyce Wilson's Head Start class, the letter of the week is "W."
At Ms. Wilson's prompting, they call out words that begin with W.
"Not mirror," the teacher gently corrects a child. "That's an M word."
The 15 children in Ms. Wilson's Head Start class on this day are just a handful of more than 2,000 enrolled in Lucas County. And they're at the center of a battle over who should run Head Start, a program for low-income 3-to-5-year-olds.
Locally, the program is run by the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo, which recently was notified it will have to compete against other agencies if it wants to keep receiving $13 million in Head Start funding from the federal government.
Toledo Public Schools board members this month unanimously directed Superintendent Jerome Pecko to research the district's capacity to take over the program; other nonprofit and even for-profit groups could also be interested.
EOPA officials have said they will fight to keep the program, which the organization has run for decades.
But statistics from TPS show children who complete the local Head Start program score within the same range as eligible children who weren't in the program, according to results on an assessment test.
The Kindergarten Readiness Assessment -- Literacy examines children's skills in oral language, rhyming, letter identification, and alliteration -- elements that are essential for reading.
The research, from TPS Assistant Superintendent Romules Durant -- taken at the beginning of the school year -- shows that Head Start children scored in the limited readiness range, with similar scores to their non-Head Start peers in the same demographic group.
Part of Mr. Durant's dissertation research relates to early childhood development and preschool programs. Until recently, he also was an EOPA board member but decided to resign because of his position at TPS, given the district's interest in the Head Start program.
The assessment test is given to all kindergartners at the beginning of every school year. The data were collected before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced EOPA would have to recompete to continue receiving Head Start funds.
Mr. Durant presented his findings at an EOPA board meeting in November.
Albert Scott, who heads EOPA's Head Start program, declined to comment on the research, saying he was not familiar with it because he was just appointed to his post in November. However, he said the Head Start program tracks children's progress in a number of areas, with teachers assessing them multiple times throughout the year.
"Do we gauge what our children do in terms of their progress? Yes, we do," he said.
Richard Jackson, EOPA board chairman, said that despite the TPS data, he believes that overall Head Start does make a difference in children's lives. However, he did suggest EOPA collaborate with TPS to improve the Head Start curriculum.
EOPA "should take those stats and use them to help guide" its program, said Mr. Jackson, who is a former TPS principal.
An effective program
Nationally, Head Start is generally considered an effective program, although its quality varies widely from site to site across the country, said Heather Sandstrom, a research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Nationwide, more than 900,000 children are enrolled in Head Start. It has enrolled more than 27 million children since it began in 1965. Head Start is also meant to be more than an academic program, offering children and their families health, nutrition, and medical services.
"It is meant to be a community hub, where families can get those resources," she said.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, agreed that there is a good deal of variation from one Head Start to another.
"I think it does have a lot to do with local decisions and where they put their resources," he said.
Mr. Barnett, who is also a professor of education, economics, and policy at Rutgers, said that although there is a great deal of monitoring and regulation of Head Start by the federal government, there is little focus on how much children learn. The program is "oriented toward compliance, rather than achievement," he said. Mr. Barnett said he believes Head Start teachers should be required to meet higher educational standards and be better paid.
Standards for Head Start teachers nationally are going up.
By Sept. 30, 2013, at least 50 percent of Head Start teachers nationwide must have a bachelor's or advanced degrees in early childhood education or in any subject with coursework equivalent to a major relating to early childhood education, with experience teaching preschool-age children.
The average Head Start teacher's salary in 2010 was $27,889, according to Yasmina Vinci, National Head Start Association executive director.
"Many programs struggle with retaining teachers who receive their degrees and are eligible to teach in school systems at higher salaries," Ms. Vinci said in an email to The Blade.
At EOPA, all Head Start classroom teachers have at least an associate's degree in early childhood education; many are working toward a master's degree, said Mr. Scott. They are paid $15 to $16.50 an hour. Many have at least eight to 10 years of experience as Head Start teachers, he added.
What might happen to current Head Start workers if TPS takes over the program is unclear. Superintendent Pecko has said he is uncertain what would happen with the current work force, but he has said the district would hope to use all certified early-childhood-education-licensed teachers. EOPA employs 300 Head Start workers -- teachers, assistants, custodians, bus drivers, family service workers, and medical staff -- who are represented by the Ohio Association of Public School Employees. The union has said it will work with the EOPA board to help the agency keep Head Start funding.
EOPA has struggled with changes in the top job at Head Start.
It recently appointed Mr. Scott, a longtime EOPA employee who also spent several decades at TPS, as Head Start's director. He was the third director in as many years.
Sylvia Huntley was fired as director in 2009 after more than 16 years leading the program. She sued, alleging age discrimination and retaliation for a wrongful-discharge claim filed by her daughter; the case was settled out of court.
In 2010, the agency hired Michelle Brown, a Toledo native with a number of years working for Head Start at the national level, as director. She stayed a brief time before concluding EOPA has "some serious leadership challenges," according to her letter of resignation.
The agency has had problems with leaving children unattended on buses; Ms. Brown also raised serious concerns about child safety when she resigned.
Learning is important
Back in Ms. Wilson's classroom at Mayfair School on Bennett Road, the children have talked about the number eight, which they are focusing on this week. They've also been read a book by Ms. Wilson about a brown bear, red bird, green frog, and orange fish and are now practicing writing their names.
Ensuring that low-income children like the ones in this classroom learn is critically important, said Mr. Barnett.
In some urban areas, children from low-income households enter school as much as 18 months behind in vocabulary compared with children from higher-income families.
"The first five years are a time of tremendous learning potential," he said.
Added Ms. Vinci, "The opportunity to succeed is a core American value, and Head Start represents a national commitment to providing opportunities to the country's most vulnerable children."
Contact Kate Giammarise at: email@example.com or 419-724-6091.