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HHS Proposes Regulatory Overhaul of Head Start

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The Department of Health and Human Services issued proposed Head Start rules last week in the first major regulatory overhaul of the preschool program in more than 20 years.

For the first time, some of the rules will also apply to preschool programs financed by the Title I compensatory-education program.

The 38-page regulatory proposal, which appeared in the April 22 issue of the Federal Register, suggests a single set of integrated standards for services for children and families to foster the collaboration Congress called for in reauthorizing Head Start in 1994. (See box, this page.)

Under the current rules, separate, and sometimes duplicative, standards are set for individual facets of Head Start programs, such as education, health, and parent involvement.

Sarah M. Greene, the chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents Head Start grantees, said the proposed rules should offer the roughly 2,100 community-based organizations that operate Head Start programs "better guidance in designing and operating a quality program."

Head Start serves about 750,000 disadvantaged children ages 3 to 5. It received $3.5 billion in fiscal 1995, which ended Oct. 1, and will receive $3.6 billion in the current fiscal year under legislation signed by President Clinton last week. (See story, this page.)

Raising Standards

The bipartisan bill that reauthorized the Head Start program through 1998 was widely praised as an effort to raise standards, improve monitoring, and apply sanctions against poor programs.

The measure also created a new program for infants and toddlers, called Early Head Start, which is also addressed by the proposed regulations. (See Education Week, May 18, 1994.)

The proposed standards set forth numerous specific guidelines for the health, education, and social services provided by Head Start agencies, updated to reflect recent research about child development and the new needs of families.

For example, the standards call on Head Start providers to meet the needs of working parents.

For the first time, the new rules would specify that educational curricula should recognize that children "have individual preferences and individual patterns of development as well as different ability levels, cultures, ages, and learning styles."

The health standards are also more detailed than the current rules. Providers would have to assess each child's health status and ensure that a health professional reviews the child's preventive-care and immunization history.

The standards call on providers to actively involve parents "in policy-making and operations" and to enlist community members "to assist in the planning and implementation" of their programs.

Head Start programs would also be subject to new enforcement rules that require federal officials to ensure that deficiencies are corrected "immediately, on a specified date, or pursuant to an approved Quality Improvement Plan." Programs are to have no more than one year to correct deficiencies before losing Head Start eligibility.

The new law also requires the Health and Human Service Department to develop performance measures to assess the program on a national level and to make changes in the system used for monitoring local programs. The agency will not issue formal regulations on those issues, said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman, but department officials are preparing guidance documents.

The 1994 law reauthorizing Title I requires Title I preschool programs to comply with Head Start performance standards by fiscal 1997, which begins Oct. 1.

Head Start programs offer an array of social services to pre-schoolers from poor families. They are sometimes run by schools, but most often are operated by community groups. Title I preschool programs are predominantly educational programs run by districts that opt to use some of their funding under the program in that way.

Title I Programs

Title I preschool programs served 133,442 students in the 1993-94 school year, about 2 percent of all students served under Title I.

Under the Department of Education's interpretation, Title I grantees operating preschool programs must comply only with the section of the Head Start standards focusing on education and early-childhood development.

Those standards would require preschool programs to be developmentally and linguistically appropriate for children and to foster social, emotional, intellectual, and physical growth. Currently, there are no specific standards for instruction provided in Title I preschool programs.

Education Department officials decided that other issues addressed by the Head Start program standards, such as parental involvement, program improvement, fiscal management, and record-keeping, are already addressed under Title I, according to proposed regulations the department published along with the proposed Head Start rules.

Mary Jean LeTendre, the department's director of compensatory-education programs, said the rules should help Head Start and Title I practitioners smooth out the transition between the programs.

"It has forced us to look more carefully at Head Start kids so when children enter the 1st grade the schools know much more about the kinds of services needed for children and families," Ms. LeTendre said.

Comments on the proposed regulations are due by June 21, and should be sent to the Associate Commissioner, Head Start Bureau, Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, P.O. Box 1182, Washington, D.C. 20013.

Highlights of Regulations

Among the proposed regulations for Head Start and Title I preschool programs are the following:

Head Start providers must conduct a health screening of all enrollees and provide ongoing health monitoring, including medical and dental, mental-health, and developmental and behavioral assessments.

Head Start programs should be developmentally and linguistically appropriate for all children served, including social and emotional development, cognitive and language skills, and physical growth. School districts that use Title I programs to provide preschool services only must comply with the standards under this section, Education and Early Childhood Development.

Head Start programs must work with parents to develop family-partnership agreements, which describe a family's goals for its children, a timetable for achieving those goals, and parents' responsibilities to their children and the program. Parental involvement permeates all aspects of the proposed regulations.

Head Start programs found to be in noncompliance with some of the program standards will have 90 days to take corrective action. Programs with serious deficiencies must craft an improvement plan.

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