Columbia University Head Start

Columbia University Head Start (CUHS) provides services to 300 low-income children and their families from birth to age five, as well as to pregnant women. Led by Carmen Rodriguez, PhD, the program’s target population is primarily immigrant Latino children from the Northern Manhattan community. Head Start services are provided through a combination of center-based groups and home visits by a bilingual, multidisciplinary staff.

In 1990, a team of Public Health and Pediatrics faculty were determined to solidly root preventative services for the community through in university sponsored program. With its focus on the whole child and the centrality of the parent’s role in child development, Head Start met that goal. Today, CUHS is a fixture in the Northern Manhattan community, providing holistic preventative and educational services to children and families.

Service Delivery

CUHS consists of the Head Start preschool, funded by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, and Early Head Start infant and toddlers, funded by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Early Head Start focuses on building parent/child relationships and fostering young children’s development. Work with pregnant women includes promoting positive birth outcomes through prenatal education and supporting physical and mental health.

Center-based services for preschoolers include twice weekly language-enriched readiness groups for children, and educational and vocational workshops for parents. The bilingual group sessions emphasize the development of children’s social skills through peer interaction within a structured environment. Simultaneously, parents attend workshops focusing on areas such as child development, nutrition, health and safety, and job readiness skills.

Center-based infant and toddler services consist of weekly parent/child infant and toddler groups aimed at strengthening parent/child bonds and stimulating development in all domains. Teachers use routines, music, and home culture and language in the curriculum, and parents are integral participants. Parenting, health, and child development themes are woven into the sessions, which support parents in building a secure relationship with their children by encouraging them to take an increasingly active role in teaching their children new skills and reinforcing those that have been mastered.

Families receive regularly scheduled biweekly home visits by bilingual educators/family workers during which early childhood specialists model strategies for working with the child, encourage responsiveness and sensitivity to the child’s needs and developmental stage, and support parents in working through the critical issues of attachment and separation. They also monitor the children's health services, offer assistance with family social service needs, and link parents to the agency’s mental health practitioners.

Health services include ensuring that all of the participating children have access to medical insurance and up-to-date immunizations. The program’s holistic approach includes a range of preventative maternal and family health education and advocacy services, including reproductive health, maternal depression, and asthma prevention. Family literacy, including English as a Second Language classes and individualized adult basic literacy classes, are critical program components that enable parents to be effectively involved in their children’s education.

Columbia University Collaborations

Columbia University Head Start is also a teaching site for professional schools at Columbia University. It provides service learning for the School of Public Health, the departments of Pediatrics, Family Medicine, and Child Psychiatry, and the School of Dental Health. It pilots interventions in public health and is currently a site for a Columbia University translational research grant. The major contribution of the program is as an incubator of pilot projects that are disseminated nationally and internationally. The program is a demonstration of the potential in the collaboration between Head Start and the Columbia University community.