By Leisa Zigman, I-Team Reporter
ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - St. Louis Head Start leaders are fighting back after calls to defund the early child hood program get louder. Bloggers, some politicians, and both right and left wing groups have labeled the program a multi-billion dollar failure.
To be eligible for St. Louis Head Start a family must be at or below the federal poverty level, which is less than $24,000 a year for a family of four.
"We know head start works. Head Start helps to prepare our children for the entry into school. That is what our charge is," said Stacy Johnson, the acting director of St. Louis Head Start.
But a new government report shows no lasting educational, emotional or socioeconomic benefits.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found Head Start improved children's preschool outcomes; however, these early effects rapidly dissipated by the end of 3rd grade.
Some see this report as a reason to cut head start and save $8 billion a year or about $7,000 per child.
"We are not in elementary school. We don't have any control over the curriculums there," Johnson said.
Johnson has her own stats showing in St. Louis, 86 percent of Head Start's 3 to 4 year olds are meeting or exceeding expectations.
"If you like us to start doing first to third grade give us more money. Don't chop what we have," she said.
It's not just conservatives putting heat on Head Start. Even liberal think tanks like the Brookings institute said Head Start isn't doing the job.
But Johnson said the value of Head Start is so much more than $8 billion a year. She strongly argues that most people have no idea how hard it is for Head Start families.
Through tears, she shared a story about one of her Head Start students missing a lot of school a few years ago so she went to the family's home.
"Two little boys came to the door in their underwear and the mom came to the door and I asked her why isn't he coming and she said we only have one pair of shoes and my other son has to get to kindergarten, so I can only let him miss so many days of school, so they had to share the shoes," she said.
The children in Head Start are overwhelmingly poor and minority. They are at high risk of starting school far behind more advantaged peers.
The unanswered question remains: why the reported gains made in a Head Start classroom are wiped out once inside a school classroom?
NewsChannel 5 reached out to the entire congressional delegation in the St. Louis metropolitan area and asked whether Head Start funding should be cut.
Only Senator Claire McCaskill responded.
"I was a working mom, so I know the importance of a program that educates our kids early and sets them up for success," she said. "When it comes to determining the value of an investment, working families in St. Louis and across Missouri will tell you that 'Head Start' is worth every penny, especially when compared to other areas where we should be saving money, like costly tax giveaways for big oil companies."
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