Blended PreK: a quiet revolution for DCPS

Fifty-six years after the District of Columbia moved to desegregate its schools, a new wave of integration will quietly sweep DCPS this fall with the incoming preschool class. 

This time it's not about race, but income. For the first time, in the District's Title I schools, three- and four-year-olds will be assigned to blended classrooms that include both low-income students enrolled in Head Start and non-Head Start students. 

But all of the preschoolers, regardless of income, will benefit from the comprehensive early education model that was pioneered and developed by Head Start. They will have access to nutritious meals in the classroom, health screenings and parent education programs that research has shown has given Head Start students an important boost as they make the transition to school.

This new integration is made possible by blending federal Head Start funds with local and state funds to expand the Head Start model to reach virtually all of the District's preschoolers. It's a quiet revolution that has so far gone virtually unnoticed. 

Preschool programs outside of DCPS have had blended classes for some time, but directors of these programs have the burden of finding supplemental funding to extend Head Start services to non-Head Start students. That can be quite a challenge in today's down economy, especially when parents whose children are eligible for federal Head Start funding opt not to enroll.

I recently had the chance to visit one such program at a community-based center in Ward 5. There, the director told me that when given a choice of a Head Start or PreK (non-Head Start) slot in the blended program, many low-income parents will chose a PreK slot. When I probed a little, the director indicated that the families were opting for PreK based on the assumption that it would benefit their child's success academically--a misguided assumption because research has shown that low-income children benefit most from a comprehensive approach to early learning. 

Unfortunately, even in these blended programs where all children receive the same education and services, it's clear that the Head Start label still bears a certain stigma among parents as being inferior to standard PreK, and un-academic. Hopefully, with all students regardless of income benefiting from Head Start services, that stigma will soon wear away.

I have great hope that parents from all backgrounds will soon realize the benefits of a Head Start-style program for their children, just as this presumably upper-middle-class parent, a former New York Times reporter, did as her child went through one of a handful of pilot blended PreK programs at a DCPS school. She not only recognized the benefits of the holistic program for her child, she also felt the program helped her become a better parent. 

Nationally and locally, advocates and policymakers are pushing for more integrated, seamless delivery of early care and education. For the District, integrating Head Start and PreK in DCPS schools is a giant step in the right direction. Head Start and PreK programs outside of DCPS can hopefully glean lessons about successfully blending funding from DCPS' integration experience. 

In fact, D.C.'s experience with PreK integration may well serve as a model for the nation. Currently, only three other states have integrated PreK and Head Start programs: Kansas, Wisconsin and South Dakota. The District should celebrate this important milestone and ensure that we work together to make it a success for all students.