Families & the Community

Proposal to Boost Head Start Hours, Year Draws Concern

By Christina A. Samuels — September 15, 2015 6 min read

A proposal to expand center-based Head Start programs to six hours a day and 180 days a year—the centerpiece of a major revision to Head Start rules that was years in the making—is drawing deep concern from providers who say they would have to cut children from the program because of a lack of facilities or teachers.

The concerns were raised in many of the hundreds of comments the public had submitted as of late last week on the proposed rules governing the 50-year-old early-learning program. Head Start, aimed at children from low-income families, has not had a rewrite of its performance standards since 1975. This revision has been in the works since 2008 and were released for public comment in June. The public comment period ends Sept. 17.

Administration Priorities

The issue also potentially sets some Head Start grantees at odds with the Obama administration, which has had the establishment of full-day prekindergarten at the top of its domestic policy agenda since 2013. That year, in his State of the Union address, the president brought forward a $75 billion proposal to assist states in expanding prekindergarten. The specific plan has stalled, though Congress has funded smaller prekindergarten efforts, such as the Preschool Development Grants awarded to 18 states last year.

Head Start’s current minimum requirement is that centers operate at least 3.5 hours a day, 128 days a year. The Head Start proposal says that if Congress complies with the administration’s request for $10.1 billion in Head Start funding—$1.5 billion more than the program’s current budget— the program can expand without any loss of services. If Congress does not come up with the money, however, about 126,000 fewer children would be served, and 9,400 teacher jobs would be lost.

The National Head Start Association says that the expanded-day requirement would be disruptive for many programs.

“While expanding access to full-day Head Start is an important goal, resources are critical and the [proposed changes] will do lasting damage to relationships and quality of programming across the country,” the organization wrote in its comments.

But the current program minimums are simply not enough time for children to build the skills they need for success once they start school, Head Start says in its proposal. About 57 percent of current Head Start preschool children are getting services for six or more hours a day, and 31 percent receive services for 180 days or more.

The research into state prekindergarten programs such as those in North Carolina and Georgia, as well as in Boston, show that those programs have strong positive effects on children’s academic readiness, and they all operate a longer school day and year, the proposal states. Head Start, in contrast, has come under fire from opponents who point to a national evaluation showing that gains made by children in the program fade by the time they reach 3rd grade.

“Continuing to operate under widely varying minimums for program dosage, in the face of the mounting evidence provided here, limits Head Start’s overall effectiveness and undermines Head Start’s mission,” the proposal says.

However, many providers said in their comments that they don’t want to chance the potential loss of students and teachers if the proposal passes without funding to go with it. Also, many of their families don’t want a longer-day option. They say the shorter day allows providers to serve both a morning and an afternoon session, and it allows families more time with their children.

“Although I do wish for more instruction time in my classroom I do not see full days fixing this problem,” one commenter wrote. “The reality is, I teach pre-K with 3, 4, and 5 years olds. They can only handle so much each day, and around the 4-5 hour mark we lose them. They can nap at home, school is a time to learn!”

Sounding Off

The federal Office of Head Start is in the midst of its first comprehensive revision of the federal preschool program’s performance standards since 1975. The proposed revisions aim to streamline some 1,400 regulatory standards and add new guidelines, such as one that would require Head Start programs to operate for a full school day and year. The public has until Sept. 17 to submit comments. Here’s a sampling of feedback so far:

On Extending the Head Start Day and Year

“We need more Head Start slots, not fewer. If we move to all-day classes universally, many slots would be lost as the building would only accommodate one class instead of a morning and afternoon session.”

“Our [double-session] program, with two classes, can currently serve up to 37 students. If we extended the day, we could serve only 17.”

On Home-Visiting Changes

“I feel that the minimum number of home-based visits should not be [boosted to] 46 per year, that is almost a year-around program.”

“I am a ... teacher in Lee County, Va. There is a need here for teaching in the homes of a lot of our kids [that] live in poor communities and have many disabilities and cannot attend school ... we may only be with that child for couple of hours, but that means a lot to the family, and they depend on us to do our job and reach out to their child.”

On Parental Engagement

“[Removing] the requirement to have parent committee meetings, which were difficult to recruit parents to attend as they didn’t see much value in the activity, will allow for a heightened focus to be on parenting-education activities.”

“While I understand the goal of wanting to reduce the bureaucratic burden on centers, eliminating parent engagement is moving backward in quality.”

On Enrollment Priority of Younger Students in States With Pre-K

“This needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis rather than a ‘must prioritize’ basis, for the reason that children and families are unique in their needs. Not every 4-year old is ready for pre-K and not every family is ready to be without the comprehensive services of Head Start.”

“Many publicly funded pre-K programs do not even serve all eligible children, and some have lower quality standards than Head Start. Where this is the case, prioritizing younger children could result in some Head Start children receiving lower-quality services than they need at age 4—or none at all.”

SOURCE: Office of Head Start

Jason Alexander, the superintendent of the 657-student Ord district in central Nebraska, said that his school system is able to serve 57 children in Head Start by running two morning sessions and one afternoon session, all for 3.5 hours. An extended day would mean the loss of two classes.

“I think, personally, the foundational basis of a preschool is learning through socialization,” Alexander said in an interview. Extending the day means “we’re doing nothing more than putting them in a kindergarten classroom already.”

Not all of the comments were against the expansion; one commenter who identified herself as a Head Start parent said a longer day and school year would give her more time to work and attend school herself. Others said that they agreed that the research showed the importance of more time in Head Start, but that the goal could be achieved with a requirement less than 180 days a year.

Right Balance

Peggy Grant, director of Head Start services for Audubon Area Community Services in Owensboro, Ky., said that she saw the benefits of a longer school day. Head Start might be able to achieve its goal by lengthening current requirements, but to something less than the current proposal.

“When you’re really talking about kindergarten readiness, I think it’s a good thing to extend the instruction time,” Grant said. “Exactly what the right balance is, I don’t know.”

Another area of concern for commenters involves proposed changes to rules around parental engagement. The proposal would pare down some prescriptive requirements from the federal government, such as that Head Start programs have parent committees. The proposed rules also de-emphasize the development of an “individualized family partnership agreement” that allows grantees and families to focus on goals and responsibilities.

Instead, Head Start grantees should be evaluating family needs on an ongoing basis, the proposal says.

But the commitment to parent involvement is what makes Head Start different from other preschool or child-care programs, said Gayle Kelly, the executive director of the Minnesota Head Start Association, in an interview. Reducing the importance of some of the parent-engagement processes may take away from Head Start’s unique role.

“This is all about building the capacity for families in poverty to see that they can make a difference by working together, making decisions about curriculum, assessment, their concerns about enrollment, any federal rule that will change the nature of their program,” she said. “They have stepped into a leadership role that enhances their sense of being leaders in their community.” Head Start needs to maintain its focus on parental input, communication, and leadership development, Kelly said.

Emmalie Dropkin, the director of policy for the National Head Start Association, said in an interview that the family partnership agreement “is sometimes the first time that someone sits down and says, ‘What are your strengths as a family? Where do you need help?’”

She added: “We recognize that the office of Head Start has done a lot to try and target bureaucracy. But we feel these are important elements to just lose for the sake of getting rid of some paperwork.”

Another proposed rules change that drew comments was one that would eliminate home-based Head Start services for children older than age 3. The Office of Head Start said getting rid of that option relates to its overall goal of providing more educational time.

Home-based services for 3- and 4-year-olds is a lightly used option—only 2 percent of Head Start children use it now. Home-based services are much more commonly used in Early Head Start programs that serve infants and toddlers.

But its supporters say it’s an important option to maintain both for rural families who cannot travel to a center, and for children with disabilities who would not be served well in a center-based option.

One commenter wrote: “I serve children in an extremely rural community. Most of the kids I serve right now live in communities of no more than 500 people. The idea that there are better community options out there for them is absurd. There are none. There is no preschool ... no library, no day-care centers, no anything,” the writer said. “The kids living in rural communities benefit greatly from this program.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Proposal to Boost Head Start Hours, Year-Length Draws Concern

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