Early Childhood

Head Start Chief Reflects on a Tenure Marked by Major Changes

By Christina A. Samuels — November 22, 2013 3 min read
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Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, in an interview with Education Week on her last day as the director of the office of Head Start, pointed to the office’s first-ever competition for federal funds, improvements in grantee monitoring, and the creation of a pilot program to offer grantees flexible funding as significant positive achievements during her four-year tenure.

Sanchez Fuentes also said during the Nov. 22 conversation that the office “didn’t come as far as we would like” in pulling together a full revision of the performance standards for Head Start grantees during her time in office, though that work is continuing. And she said the agency plans to continue its work to reach out to organizations that might be qualified to run Head Start programs—both to get them interested in the option if they had not considered it before, and to find out what may be holding them back from applying.

“Down to this last day, we still have been talking about publicizing in a much wider way that the funds are available,” she said. “We really have to figure out if we’re getting the right organizations to apply and finding why they’re not, if they are not.”

Sanchez Fuentes was appointed to the position overseeing the $7.6 billion organization, which serves about 900,000 preschool age children and their families, in 2009. Before joining the federal goverment, she was the executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, an organization representing Head Start grantees that serve mobile youths.

In 2007, two years before her appointment, the Bush administration reauthorized Head Start with some major accountability reforms. Grantees once had been allowed to retain funding essentially in perpetuity, unless they committed a major violation of child safety or fiscal responsibility. After the reauthorization, the approximately 1,600 Head Start grantees are expected to hold their funding for only five years, and the office was expected to make low-performing centers recompete for funds.

That work on recompetition began in earnest during the Obama administration. Currently, the first cohort of grantees has gone through “designation renewal,” while the results of the competition in a second cohort have yet to be released. A third cohort will be named sometime in early 2014, Sanchez Fuentes said.

“It was a tremendous amount of work” getting the first cohort evaluated, Sanchez Fuentes said. “But in the end, I think everyone agreed that it was about raising quality.” And that conversation went beyond just the grantees that were a part of the competition process, she said. “I think people really stepped back and thought about what they could be doing better,” she said.

Head Start has also launched a pilot program that will allow grantees spending flexibility for creating programs for children ages birth to 5. Currently, the department designates how much money grantees must spend on Early Head Start, which serves families and children up to age 3, and on Head Start, which is for 4-year-olds. Under the pilot, grantees don’t have to submit separate applications for each pot of money; instead they are encouraged to create a seamless program that best serves a community.

“We were responding to a need that programs said they had for a while,” she said. “What we said is, think about the amount of total funding that is available. You come in and tell us how you would spend that money.” Sanchez Fuentes said she’s looking forward to seeing what lessons will be learned from the communities that get the grants; those announcements have not yet been made.

Sanchez Fuentes was also at the helm of Head STart when sequester cuts pared money from Head Start grantees and a government shutdown forced some centers to temporarily close until they were given a no-interest loan by a Houston-based philanthropist.

The sequester has led to a loss of 57,000 slots; to put that number in perspective, about 956,000 slots were funded in fiscal 2012. But the cuts haven’t caused Head Start quality to go down, she believes.

“Congress doesn’t give Head Start enough money to serve all the eligible kids, so it’s really important for organizations to figure out who are the neediest people in the community and serve them,” she said. Grantees “always kept quality in the front of their minds.”

Sanchez Fuentes said she plans to stay in the early-childhood field, though for the next few weeks she intends to spend more time with her family. “I’m examining my options and figuring out where I can do some good,” she said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.