More than any other community in western Connecticut, Danbury is the ultimate tale of two cities, particularly when you walk its streets and driveways.
From the cultural diversity of downtown to the affluent enclaves flanking Richter Park and other pockets of privilege, Danbury is a two-sided picture of mounting struggles and material success.
And yet, for generations in America, education has always been the great equalizer, the publicly accessible path from poverty to prosperity.
Except in Connecticut — at least, not anymore.
In a state with the country’s largest achievement gap between “low income” kids and “non-low income” kids, the path to a better life has sawhorses and flashing lights in front of it.
These days, the road to widespread academic mastery in Connecticut — fueled by good teachers and good study habits — is under construction for too many children.
Without the necessary tools for our most vulnerable kids, the road to good grades all too often becomes a highway to nowhere.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Some of the best ideas to help vulnerable kids do well in school — and shrink the state’s notorious and shameful achievement gap — come from Head Start.
So what is Head Start?
“Head Start is a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to 5 from low-income families,” reads the Head Start website. “Head Start emphasizes the role of parents as their child’s first and most important teacher.”
Kids learn study skills and language skills and social skills in Head Start. They discover that learning is fun. More than that, they discover learning can push away those sawhorses and flashing lights.
“From the first hour of the first day of school, the achievement gap between poor kids and affluent kids is in full force,” Danbury Deputy Superintendent Bill Glass told The News-Times on Friday. “Head Start has shown to be a good strategy to mitigate that gap. The point is, can we afford it? It’s penny wise and pound foolish to cut it.”
So here’s the deal: Everyone loves Head Start. Or at least they profess to love it.
The problem is — as it always is with public programs — who is going to pay for it?
For the record, Head Start is funded with local, state and federal money.
The Head Start folks in Danbury asked for $585,000 for next year. The Board of Education countered with $195,000, a chasm of $390,000 — not a small number.
But neither is the $900,000 city officials may have been over-billed in cleanup costs from last October’s freak snowstorm.
And don’t forget all the money Danbury saved this year from its sand, salt and plowing budget. Municipal budgets are always moving targets, after all.
I get that Danbury Superintendent Sal Pascarella has a nearly impossible job, and still manages to get high marks from teachers, parents and kids alike.
I get that Mark Boughton has an obligation to keep taxes low and services high, the irrepressible conundrum for every politician.
But at some point — now is a good time — Danbury and the rest of the state must look at the long-term rewards of producing a skilled and educated work force by paying for Head Start.
“Of all the non-mandated programs, the one that does the most to impact closing the achievement gap is Head Start,” James Maloney, president of the Connecticut Institute for Communities, told The News-Times on Friday.
Granted, Maloney has a vested interest in Head Start’s success in Danbury because his organization oversees the program. But that doesn’t diminish the content of his message.
Consider: In Fiscal Year 2009 — the most recent statistics available — nearly 1 million children in America were helped by Head Start, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Of those children, 39.9 percent were white, 35.9 were Hispanic and 30 percent were black, the same sort of kids you’ll see every day in Danbury’s schools.
Nationally, Head Start had 212,000 paid staff in Fiscal Year 2009, according to the feds. While that might sound like a lot of people, it’s nothing compared to Head Start’s nearly 1.3 million volunteers in Fiscal Year 2009.
Let’s be honest: Head Start isn’t designed for the families with six-figure incomes and seven-figure homes. It’s designed for the families who want their kids to study hard, work hard and give back to the people who helped them.
The Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement puts it like this: “Every child should have a chance to be exceptional.”
OK, now wait for it. Wait for it …
Those two words are the key to Connecticut’s long-term success and America’s long-term success at beating the achievement gap.
The path to this promise begins with Head Start.