“We work with the parents, we work with the community, we do health, we do dental, we do nutrition. Ours is an all-around family-and-child kind of program -- whereas a school is a school,” said Ruhl, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We have social-service staff, we have health staff, we have a registered dietitian. We have a lot of agreements with other agencies, so if our families need mental-health services or help with rent or any of that, we have resources at our fingertips,” she said. “The philosophy is, the whole family has to be ready for school, not just the child.”
That, said Ruhl, is the difference between a federally funded Head Start program like hers and a regular preschool. For 16,000 children in New Jersey and more than a million across the country, Head Start centers offer learning and socialization to help them overcome the barriers associated with poverty, at the same time that the support staff work to foster family stability.
Many of the Head Starts in New Jersey are also Abbott preschools. Through that program, which provides pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in 35 disadvantaged school districts, the state shares the cost of eligible Head Start centers. The participating centers must also meet the Abbott standards, such as small class sizes and teachers with bachelor degrees and preschool certification.
Head Start has been hugely popular since it was started in 1965, maintaining support from both Republican and Democratic administrations. Its budget has steadily climbed to $8.6 billion, and President Barack Obama wants to add another $1.5 billion so every center can offer full-day care over a full school year in order to boost the benefits.