In Defense of Head Start"" could also be the subtitle of this exploration of the preschool program that is one of the few surviving programs of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Mills (This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, 1993) mixes extensive observations at Head Start centers from the inner-city Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles to affluent Montgomery County, Md., with pointed summaries of the history and policies of the program that exemplified the slogan ""A hand up, not a handout."" The Watts Towers center is Mills's home base; for a year, she is a frequent visitor, watching the children master not only colors and numbers in two languages, but brushing their teeth, eating their vegetables, and getting along with their peers. A federally funded program, Head Start has had--and still has--a struggle to maintain its independence and community roots in the face of would-be state and local government takeovers. Despite the infamous third-grade fadeout effect, the program, which began as a summer introduction to school for a few thousand children, has now served more than 15 million children and established the importance of preschool and parent involvement as a precursor to later school success. What differentiates Head Start from other preschool programs even now is its emphasis on health and social services for the children and on parent involvement. The latter is a stumbling block: Many parents whose stories are told here have used Head Start training and job opportunities to establish themselves; other programs struggle to involve parents and the community and recruit adequate staff. Money alone is not the answer, says author Mills in summing up; quality control and a ""war on the real causes of poverty"" should be new goals. A champion of Head Start brings readers into the classrooms and the homes where the program helps turn foundering families into resourceful citizens.