Over the past decade, the changing demographics of Head Start families and communities have posed increasing challenges to Head Start staff nationally. Alcohol and drug abuse, child abuse, and community violence have compromised the family and community environments of too many Head Start children, creating significant obstacles to their healthy development.
In 1994, the national Head Start program entered into a unique partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the nation's leading health philanthropies, to develop substance abuse prevention strategies for the Head Start community. This program is called Free To Grow: Head Start Partnerships to Promote Substance-Free Communities. During Free To Grow's initial model-development phase, five Head Start communities were funded to develop comprehensive approaches to reducing the vulnerability of young children to the impact of substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors as they grew older. Based on growing research on risk and protective factors and the ecological development of the child, Free To Grow's program strategies were focused on strengthening the young child's environment, specifically their families and communities, . These strategies include: enhanced family-assessment protocols and procedures; intensive case management; dedicated substance abuse and mental health treatment partnerships; parent education and family support, including family-to-family mentoring strategies; leadership development; community engagement-focused community assessment; and community action to support environmental and policy change.
In June 2000, building upon the promising approaches developed during the model development phase, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, joined by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and in collaboration with local Head Start agencies in 15 diverse communities throughout the country, launched the Free To Grow national evaluation and demonstration program.
Designed as a local funding partnership, this second phase of Free To Grow is testing the strategies developed by the Head Start programs in the first phase of the initiative to lay the foundation for broader dissemination of the program's most successful components within the Head Start community.
From its inception, Free To Grow was conceived as a series of interlocking partnerships. On the national level, partnerships between federal Head Start leadership, the Robert Wood Johnson and Doris Duke Charitable Foundations, the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, which is responsible for providing technical assistance to local Free To Grow grantees, and Wake Forest University School of Medicine, responsible for conducting a rigorous process and impact evaluation, are critical for articulating the program's vision, determining the support that Head Start grantees would need to carry out the program's strategies, and laying the foundation for later sustainability of program practices.
On the local level, community-based partnerships were deemed so essential to the initiative's success that the concept was built into the program's title, "Head Start Partnerships to Promote Substance-Free Communities." Formal partnerships with a diverse group of community agencies and institutions were considered critical for supporting families and changing community environments over the long term. Free To Grow relied heavily on Head Start's credibility in the communities that it has served for over 30 years to bring a broad range of stakeholders to the table. Police departments immediately became valuable partners in working to enhance neighborhood safety and reduce drug dealing and the violence that often accompanies it.
Substance abuse treatment organizations have also been instrumental in developing linkages for those families identified as needing this level of support. Schools have also been essential in order to see that children and their families continue to receive support as they transition from Head Start's nurturing environment into the school system.
Parents and other community residents have also been at the core of all partnerships in Free To Grow. One of the program's unique aspects involves its focus on linking Head Start parents with the broader range of parents and other residents within their communities. These relationships have been crucial for developing interventions that seek to change community norms regarding the use of alcohol and drugs.
By bringing diverse partners to the table and establishing enduring relationships that share accountability for outcomes, Free To Grow hopes to engage Head Start in participating in a broader community-wide effort to address the devastating impact of substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors on so many of our youngest citizens today.
The dialogue included below was recorded during a March 2002 meeting of Free To Grow program leadership and partners. The meeting was convened to discuss the elements of successful collaboration. During the meeting's sessions, we asked participants to talk about their emerging relationships and their importance to Free To Grow's efforts within their communities.
(Available by permission of the National Head Start Association, reprinted from (2003) NHSA Dialog, 6(2), 201-226.)