Federal

Day-Care Providers to Partner With Head Start

By Christina A. Samuels — January 13, 2015 7 min read
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When a half-billion dollars in federal money begins rolling out later this year, hundreds of private day-care providers will have a chance to tap into extensive new early-learning resources, in exchange for meeting stringent Head Start standards.

The Obama administration wants Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership Grants to boost the quality of child care available to infants and toddlers from low-income families by forging partnerships between small centers and family-day-care homes and Early Head Start, which serves infants, toddlers up to age 3, and pregnant women.

But the benefits of federal funding come with substantial challenges for these small businesses. They have just 18 months from the time they receive their money to fully meet Head Start’s many standards, which regulate teacher qualifications, child-to-adult ratios, and family involvement, all the way down to frequency of hand washing and proper disposal of potty contents.

State child-care licensing regulations are generally much more relaxed; for example, some states allow one adult with a high school diploma or equivalent to care for as many as six babies. Early Head Start requires care providers to have at least a child-development associate credential and care for no more than four babies.

Combining Strengths

Carol Keintz, the executive director of the Next Door Foundation in Milwaukee, which received a $4.8 million grant, acknowledged that the Head Start requirements can seem “daunting.” However, the positives outweigh those concerns for the social service agency, she said. In looking for community child-care centers with which to form partnerships, the foundation focused on those that were already well-regarded and achieving top rankings through Wisconsin’s quality-rating and -improvement system.

“My sense is that, together as a community, we can do better with leveraging more resources and each other’s expertise,” Ms. Keintz said. “We could have gone for more children for us, but it seemed to make more sense if we mobilized others in the community.”

At a Glance

Early Head Start

  • Created in 1994 to serve children from infancy to age 3, and pregnant women.
  • Serve 4% of eligible children, or about 150,100 as well as 6,400 pregnant women and their families (fiscal year 2013).

Partnership Initiative

  • Obama administration set aside $500 million on January 2014 to pay for partnerships between Early Head Start centers and private child-care providers.
  • Goal is to increase the number of child-care centers available to low-income families that meet Head Start’s quality standards.
  • Preliminary award of 234 grants announced in December; more awards to be made through march 2015.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Head Start

Another grantee is the Lee County school district in Florida, whose Early Head Start program primarily benefits teenage parents who can then continue their education. The district currently serves 126 children in Early Head Start and expects that 72 more children will be served through a $900,000 federal grant, said Maggie Stevens, the principal of early-childhood-learning services for the district.

The money will allow the 76,000-student district to form partnerships with nine community day-care centers—five child-care centers and four family-day-care homes—which offer longer hours and more convenient locations for parents, Ms. Stevens said.

When the district first made plans to reach out to community providers, it wasn’t sure if it would be overwhelmed with responses, if few centers would want to participate, or what might motivate centers to be interested in partnering.

“But the people who showed up asked such good questions about how this was going to benefit their families,” Ms. Stevens said. “Right from the get-go, we had a really good feeling about the partnerships that we had.”

New Conditions

Still to be determined is how the partnerships will intersect with the newly reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which funnels federal money that states disburse to low-income families to pay for child care. Many of the families that would be eligible for day care in the partnership would also be eligible to receive child-care subsidies through the block grant.

Congress embedded additional quality standards within the child-care block grant when it reauthorized the program, and sought to address other common problems, such as families losing eligibility for the subsidy more than once a year and thus being forced to remove their children from care. States will now assess eligibility every 12 months.

“This is really about leveraging those high standards of Head Start,” Hannah Matthews, the director of child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, in Washington, said of the partnership program. She noted that children who are able to enroll in Early Head Start—nationally, it serves about 4 percent of those eligible—get access to a robust menu of support services. Low-income children served through the child-care subsidy, on the other hand, have the same high needs as children in Early Head Start but can end up in child-care programs that are barely regulated.

“Not only does Early Head Start have this full array of standards, it also has training and professional development and an opportunity to meet those standards,” Ms. Matthews said. “Very often, we are imposing these standards without giving [providers] support.”

Regulatory Burden

But are the standards high—or just onerous? Katharine B. Stevens, a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last month that the new grants are starting on the wrong track by “focusing on teacher credentials rather than effectiveness, holding programs accountable for compliance rather than outcomes, and advocating centralized control rather than innovation.”

In an interview, she said, “It just seems like the Head Start culture has become very compliance-oriented. The whole concept of complying with these standards can be very distracting from focusing on your impact on kids.”

Previous attempts to connect Early Head Start and child-care providers have shown “suggestive” evidence of improved quality. But there has not yet been a rigorous evaluation to prove that, said Diane Paulsell, the associate director of human-services research for Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J.

Mathematica has been awarded a grant to study the partnerships, and as part of that work, reviewed 78 studies of those early-childhood connections.

One key area is how each partnership divides its responsibilities, Ms. Paulsell said. For example, Early Head Start requires children to have developmental assessments. Would day-care staff be trained to give those assessments? Will the Early Head Start partner send its staff to different centers instead?

“There’s benefits to both ways of doing that, so they’ll need to negotiate who is doing what,” Ms. Paulsell said.

The review of research, which was released in November, indicated that strong partnerships correlated with well-defined structures, including formal agreements and staff assigned to oversee the partnership. Barriers included regulatory differences across funding streams and discrepancies in program standards across the different early-childhood settings.

Partnerships Still Unfolding

Applicants for the partnership-grant funds could submit an application without a partnership component. Of the awards currently announced—$435 million of the $500 million allocated to the program—74 percent of the agencies proposed 100 percent partnership arrangements, according to the office of Head Start. Twenty percent proposed a mix of expanding their own programs and partnering with other providers, and 6 percent proposed only to expand their own programs. The entire $500 million is expected to be awarded by March.

About $2.9 million in grant funds is slated to go to the Puget Sound Educational Service District in Renton, Wash. Luba Bezborodnikova, the district’s associate superintendent for early learning, said the agency was also strategic in how it recruited partners; for example, it looked for those that would be able to maintain financial stability even after bringing their child-to-adult ratios down to Early Head Start standards.

“It’s not only about bringing a child to the specific facility and being safe and comfortable leaving the child,” she said. “It’s also knowing that ... the child will also have meaningful interactions with adults. There will be books read, there will be games played, there will be exposure to different types of activities.”

Heather Singleton, the program director of the Gladiolus Learning and Development Center in Fort Myers, Fla., said she welcomed the extra oversight, as well as the resources, that will come with partnering with the Lee County district. The center already receives child-care subsidies and money through the state’s voluntary pre-K system, and thus is used to additional oversight, she said. The partnership will allow the center to serve eight additional infants and toddlers.

“I personally feel it creates more accountability,” she said. “And it makes sure we’re doing the very best that we can for these children.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Head Start Partnerships to Provide New Resources, Standards for Day Care

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