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New Regulations for Head Start Seek To Broaden and ImproveOperations

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By Deborah L. Cohen

WASHINGTON--Proposed federal rules would require local Head Start grantees when recruiting new applicants to serve more children in isolated areas, favor younger children for whom kindergarten is not available, and weigh such factors as whether children live with single parents or families with a history of child abuse or substance abuse.

The Head Start program, which combines educational, health, social services, and parental support for disadvantaged 3- to 5-year olds, has been widely embraced in recent years as a model approach to boost poor children's chances of success in school. The goal set by the President and the nation's governors to ensure that all children start school ready to learn has bolstered support for the program, and legislation that would extend and fully fund the program by 1994 is now pending in the Congress. (See Education Week, May 23, 1990.)

The program now serves only about one-quarter of all eligible children.

Head Start marked its 25th anniversary in May. The proposed new rules, published in the July 23 Federal Register, are the latest in a series of regulations offered by the Health and Human Services Department in an effort to broaden the base of children served and improve operations.

The proposal would require local grantees to recruit and serve children over a specified geographic area, negotiated with the department, rather than confining services to pockets of high population concentration.

While grantees are now funded to serve a city, county, or other designated area, it is not unusual for them to focus services in parts of the areathe need is considered greatest and resources are most plentiful.

"We are concerned that, as funding increases, grantees may tend to expand services in the areas where they are already operating, rather than move into unserved parts of their service area," the federal proposal states.

It would also require that Head Start programs serve all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds "before 5-year-olds who have the option of going to kindergarten could be enrolled."

Once enrolled in the program, the rule adds, children should continue to be served until they are able to enroll in kindergarten or 1st grade.

Current regulations require grantees to favor families with the lowest income when more applicants than can be served meet the program's income criteria. Under the proposed rules, however, grantees would be encouraged to weigh other criteria, such as the child's age, the parents' health, and whether parents work or are involved in job-training programs.

To ensure that program slots that open up when families move during the course of a year are filled quickly, the new rules would also require that grantees recruit 20 percent more applicants than are needed to fill slots available at the beginning of the year.

Don Bolce, director of information services for the National Head Start Association, said the proposal addresses "appropriate" areas of concern and "much of what is proposed is good practice and can be found in good programs across the country."

But he warned that a "rigid application" by regional offices could impede grantees' flexibility.

For example, he noted, while it is "general practice" to discourage services for 5-year-olds who could enroll in kindergarten, some districts, on the basis of school "readiness" tests, encourage parents to delay kindergarten entry. In other cases, he noted, kindergartens lack the comprehensive features of Head Start or are not "developmentally appropriate" to the child's learning style.

"On the one hand, Head Start programs really need to work with schools to make sure they are ready for kids," he said. "At the same time, I would hate to see us forcing all children into kindergarten."

Requiring grantees to serve children over a broad geographic area "could prove problematic," he added, "until resources greatly increase."

"Most agencies now are doing a good-faith, quality recruitment," added Larry B. Shirosten, director of the Economic Opportunity Committee of Clark County, Wash., a Head Start grantee. But they would have problems ensuring transportation and recruiting the staff needed to serve hard-to-reach areas without additional funding, he noted.

Rita Schwarz, a program analyst in the Head Start Bureau of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, said service boundaries would not be a "unilateral decision," but a "back-and-forth issue between [grantees] and regional offices."

She also noted that the rule, which says grantees must serve an entire geographic area "to the extent their financial resources allow," would permit a grantee to make the case that it is only equipped to serve a particular area in greatest need.

While predicting that the proposed change would not affect the majority of grantees, she noted that the issue may be "trickier" in cities with multiple grantees or where a Head Start grantee that is a school district "may not want to extend their services into another school district."

Mr. Bolce and Mr. Shirosten both said they supported giving grantees more leeway to consider other family variables besides income--provided, Mr. Bolce said, that the process did not "distract" them from the goal of serving all families who qualified.

Both men suggested, however, that requiring grantees to recruit a set amount more children than they can serve may be counterproductive given the investment of staff time and the transience of the population.

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