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Celebrated Program for Children Adapts to Meet New Challenges

IT'S animal time at Head Start. Sitting on the floor in a circle, 12 children lift their faces toward the brown cardboard sheep that assistant teacher Mary Goodwin is holding.

``Now what happens when the sheep gets all big and fat?'' asks Ms. Goodwin.

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``They shoot him,'' says one little boy.

``No, they don't shoot him,'' says Ms. Goodwin, smiling. ``They shave him!'' She holds up pieces of fuzzy sheepskin which the children then glue on the cardboard.

On the face of it, this could be a scene lifted from any Head Start program over the last 25 years, a multiracial class, adequate support from teachers and therapists, hot meals, free medical and dental care. But this class is different: These children are homeless.

As family conditions have changed, so has Head Start. In the 25 years of its existence, new programs for children with AIDS, migrant children, disabled children, native American children, and those in protective custody have sprung up. There are two for homeless children. Still others are for parents: job training, and full-time child care.

Head Start was conceived by President Lyndon Johnson as a way to break the cycle of poverty by better preparing impoverished three- to five-year-olds to enter school, and by helping their parents earn a living. It has helped more than 11 million children and is widely regarded as one of the federal government's most successful social development programs. Some program graduates have gone on to college and law school. Others have entered school healthier and readier to learn than they would have been without it.

``The group of children coming in now is really different than it was 15 years ago, and we need increasingly specialized services for these kids,'' says Don Bolce, director of information services for the National Head Start Association, in Alexandria, Va.

Except for one little boy with scars on his face who doesn't smile and plays by himself, the children seem relatively happy and involved. ``Don't let that fool you,'' says Sandy Waddell, director of the program. ``They hide their feelings. Depression is a big problem with these kids.''

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Because homeless children have greater needs, this program provides longer hours than usual - six instead of four, and it runs all year instead of nine months. A teacher pays weekly visits to parents in hotels and shelters.

This program draws from six nearby communities, and includes some children from Boston whose families have been sent by agencies to suburban motels.

Waiting list

As with many Head Start programs, it is hard to get in. The North Shore Community Action Program enrolls 170 children in its five Head Start programs, with 40 to 50 waiting to get in.

``And we can't even accept working poor,'' Mrs. Waddell says. ``Fast food pays $7 an hour, which makes a family ineligible for Head Start, but isn't enough to pay the $700 to $800 rents.''

This year, Head Start expects to serve 487,000 children. The federal budget is $1.386 billion, and grantees also receive state, local, and private funding. President Bush has endorsed the program and asked Congress for an added $500 million for next year.

Until recently, lack of funds prevented Head Start from reaching more than 20 percent of eligible three- to five-year-olds. Adjusting for inflation, federal funding per child in Head Start in 1989 had declined by 10 percent since 1982. But take away the five-year-olds, who now are generally served by federally mandated kindergartens, and the program now reaches 37 percent of eligible three- and four-year-olds for at least one year.

Wade Horn, commissioner for the federal Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, which runs Head Start, says his goal is to add more children with the additional $500 million. If the program can reach 180,000 more children, it would be ``within striking distance of universal Head Start,'' says Dr. Horn.

Waddell sees other uses for the money - teacher salaries are at the top of her list. Overall average salary of a Head Start teacher is only $12,074 a year. She would also like to see Head Start programs own their facilities. Programs often have to move after investing in a facility, she says.

Parents helped, too

The philosophy of Head Start involves parents as well as children. Getting them participating as volunteers, and in administrative decisions, has been a cornerstone of the program. It also aims to give parents the skills to interact with the public schools systems. There is even an in-house career ladder for parents.

The head teacher at the North Shore program, Mikki Blazak, climbed it. She started as a volunteer in her son's Head Start classroom, then became a teacher's aide. With financial help from Head Start, she got her degree from Wheelock College and has been teaching here for 11 years.

Waddell placed Mrs. Blazak in charge of this particularly demanding class ``because she's one of our best.'' Blazak is gentle and everywhere at once, cleaning sand out of one student's eyes, and asking another if he's really supposed to be fooling around in the ``kitchen.'' The program, she said, not only got her off welfare, but also made her less shy.

And her son, like many Head Start graduates, is leading a productive life: After graduation from high school this year, he will be going into military service. The first of two articles. The second will appear Friday.

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