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The other day I was approached by one of my most dedicated parents, who comes early every morning to help me set up: “Ms. Gerilyn, is Gabriela going to be kicked out of school this summer?”
It was a heartbreaking—but valid—question. Last summer, half of my students were among the 57,000 Head Start children who were cut from their programs, victims of the sequester. Cuts that took away valuable school time that each of my students, like Gabriela—despite the fact that she can recite, nearly verbatim, every story I’ve read aloud in class—really can’t afford to miss.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence. Last week marked 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America”—a battle cry from which Head Start, one of the Great Society Programs, was born. And yet, despite the numerous benefits of Head Start and Early Head Start Programs, children living in poverty are still denied services far too frequently.
Take my student, Julio, for instance. Julio came into the program not speaking a word of English. Every day his mother would walk him over five miles to school—carrying her newborn baby girl in one hand, and holding Julio’s hand with the other. By the end of the year, Julio was writing his name and helping his younger peers learn English (real-life proof of the finding of significantly stronger positive impacts of Head Start on language and school performance for DLL students, relative to their native speaking counterparts).
Julio never missed a day of school last year, yet his family was informed last June that he would be cut from the program—effective immediately. No warning! Just a permanent exit from the program because of budget cuts.
Quality preschool programs can change the life trajectories of children from low-income families. Early brain development has lifelong consequences and a high-stress early childhood in poverty changes the physical brain in subtle ways that impair educational performance and life outcomes. Great early childhood programs actually pay for themselves within a decade or two.
So the tragedy is that—despite the fact that research proves disadvantaged children in Head Start programs who receive quality early education are more likely to persist in school, earn higher wages, engage in healthier lifestyles, and may be less likely to engage in criminal behavior—expansion of publicly-funded preschool remains the focus of prominent debate.
There is movement in the right direction. Concurrent with Poverty Awareness Month, President Obama declared “a child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.” And the bipartisan introduction of the Strong Start of America’s Children Act gives some hope for students like Julio. As the State of the Union Address draws near, we can only hope that President Obama will keep early learning on the top of his priority list this year!
My students approach challenging situations by saying, “Ms. Gerilyn, I not giving up… I am persistent like the little blue engine.” So in the spirit of that little engine that could:
President Obama and policymakers from the left and the right: I think you can, I think you can, I think you can. I think you can continue to live up to the legacy of LBJ and give our nation’s poorest children the chance to attain a high-quality education in Head Start and other preschool programs across the nation.
Gerilyn Slicker is a 2012 Teach For America corps member and lead teacher at a Head Start facility in Las Vegas, Nevada. Gerilyn has a BA in history and sociology from the University of California, San Diego; a MA in sociology from The George Washington University; and is currently pursuing an M.Ed. in early childhood education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Prior to joining TFA, Gerilyn did research at an education policy think tank in Washington, DC. Gerilyn is an education policy and research enthusiast and aspires to be a lifelong advocate for our nation’s youngest learners.