GAO: Head Start Programs Underenrolled

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Many Head Start programs across the country don't enroll as many children as they receive federal money to serve, but the extent of the situation is unknown, according to a recent report from the General Accounting Office.

The Administration for Children and Families, the branch of the Department of Health and Human Services that manages the federal preschool program designed to aid poor children, does not collect accurate national data on programs that are underenrolled, the researchers concluded.

They also found inconsistencies between what regional Head Start agencies consider to be "unacceptable" levels of enrollment and the definitions used by the ACF.

"Our survey work and analysis indicate it is possible that underenrollment is more widespread than ACF has acknowledged," write the authors of the Dec. 4, 2003 report by the congressional watchdog agency. "The complexity of factors buffeting Head Start grantees underscores the need for ACF to accurately identify underenrollment and its causes on a timely basis."

Interviews by the GAO with regional ACF officials and administrators in Head Start agencies uncovered a variety of reasons that some programs were not filled to capacity, including greater demands among parents for full-day programs when only part-day classes were available.

Other factors cited are parents' use of other sources of early-childhood services, including reliance on relatives for care, and language and cultural differences between families and Head Start staff members.

Variety of Factors

The report recommends that the Health and Human Services Department take steps to improve the accuracy of the enrollment data included in its annual survey of Head Start grantees, and come up with a standard method for regional offices to identify programs where underenrollment might require "corrective action."

The GAO also recommends that Head Start officials improve the way they track enrollment in part-day and full-day programs.

In a response included in the report, HHS officials agreed with the recommendations and said they would take action to improve monitoring of enrollment.

Vol. 23, Issue 16, Page 12

Published in Print: January 7, 2004, as GAO: Head Start Programs Underenrolled
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