CORVALLIS - A team of Oregon educators will work with the national Head Start Bureau, Wheelock College in Boston, and state Head Start programs to bring additional higher education to Head Start teachers.

Head Start is the nation's largest early childhood development program, serving almost a million children whose families have very low income. Congress has mandated that 50 percent or more of Head Start's lead teachers across the nation will have at least an associate's degree by 2003. "The main goal is to find a way to provide college and university coursework for Head Start employees while they continue to work," said Sharon Rosenkoetter, an associate professor of early childhood development at Oregon State University.

"Many of these teachers have excellent skills that they learned on the job and through Head Start's professional development opportunities," Rosenkoetter added. "These teachers know their neighborhoods and the cultures and languages of their families. Many have experienced what it is like to live in poverty, since Head Start has often employed parents of its children and helped them build skills for economic self-sufficiency.

"What the staff lack in many cases," she said, "is a more formal education - the liberal arts and sciences foundation, theories of child and adult development and family functioning, and training in matching individual needs to curriculum or community services."

Just how Oregon's colleges and universities can play a role is what the Oregon team will seek to discover. The team is one of just 10 from around the country chosen to undergo a series of training sessions in Washington, D.C. OSU's Rosenkoetter, Sue Doescher of Linn-Benton Community College, and Cathy Thompson from KIDCO Head Start of Linn and Benton counties will attend three four-day planning sessions over the next year.

The team also will work with other partners in the state, including Southern Oregon University, Rogue Community College, OSU Cascades Campus, Central Oregon Community College, the Head Start and Early Head Start programs at Deschutes County and Warm Springs, and Eastern Oregon University and its Head Start program.

Head Start began to assist three- and four-year-olds and their families with comprehensive support services in the 1960s. These services include health, mental health, nutrition, child and parent education, and referrals to community agencies.

The success of the programs prompted Congress to initiate Early Head Start in the 1990s, supporting development for families with low income whose children are pre-natal to age three. Head Start has a federal budget of nearly $5 billion annually, while Oregon contributes additional funds for the Oregon Prekindergarten Program that follows a Head Start model.

Providing enough training and support to help low-income Head Start teachers receive associate's degrees and, in some cases, bachelor's degrees, will not be easy, Rosenkoetter acknowledged.

"There are a lot of barriers, with access being a primary concern," she said. "Most Head Start workers can't afford time off from the job for additional education. The mere idea of a university education, especially on a big campus, may be intimidating. And there are other factors, ranging from language barriers to transportation difficulties to the difference between an academic calendar and the migrant farm schedule. We want to explore distance learning and off-campus classes for cohorts of Head Start staff members.

"Our universities and colleges need to look at more creative ways of incorporating non-traditional students into our programs," Rosenkoetter said. "Many of these employees have real-life experiences that would be valuable to share with the more traditional 18- to 22-year-old population."

The Oregon educators hope to develop a model that will provide a variety of ways to work with Head Start programs in the state. Oregon's Head Start programs serve about 5,400 children in a variety of settings, both at early childhood centers and in homes.

Taking advantage of existing programs and community resources, with additional funding from Head Start, might address some of the barriers, Rosenkoetter said.

"Excellent campus services for non-traditional students at community colleges and universities can help make college attendance less formidable," she said. "The vision we have is to make higher education accessible, visible, and meaningful to Head Start staff in their daily interactions with children and families.

"What a wonderful example for these young children to see their teachers and parents excited about going to school," Rosenkoetter added.