Early Childhood

New Head Start Rules Aim to Balance Flexibility, Oversight

By Christina A. Samuels — September 13, 2016 4 min read
Ja’Malachi Server-Walker, 4, (left), Julian Aguilar-Gasga, 4, (right) and their classmates offer books to be read by teacher Ytashia Harris at the Skelly campus of the Community Action Project, a Head Start center in Tulsa, Okla.
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In the five decades since Head Start was formed as part of the War on Poverty, the federally funded preschool program has walked a line between local flexibility and government oversight. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services holds the purse strings for the $8.6 billion program, but local grantees have been encouraged to create programs that fit their communities’ needs.

With the Sept. 1 release of a long-awaited rewrite of the regulations that govern Head Start, federal officials say they have strengthened the program while maintaining the ability of individual programs to meet the needs of children and families. The revisions are the most sweeping changes to Head Start since 1975.

But one element that some Head Start programs used—running morning and afternoon sessions to serve more children—will be gone as a standard option.

Setting the Parameters

What's Required

When Congress reauthorized Head Start in 2007, it directed the federal preschool agency to review and revise its performance standards. The final regulations were released Sept. 1 and will be effective Nov. 7, though some elements may be phased in over time. Here’s an overview of some changes.

LENGTH OF DAY AND YEAR Head Start for 4-year-olds must operate for 1,020 hours each school year. Early Head Start, which serves infants and toddlers, must operate 1,380 hours per year. These changes, which will be phased in over 5 years, are meant to provide the benefit of more educational time to students.

STREAMLINING About 30 percent of the more than 1,400 regulations in the prior standards have been trimmed, and the standards have been reorganized for clarity.

FAMILY ENGAGEMENT The Office of Head Start had proposed eliminating a requirement for individual Head Start programs to have a parent committee, but the final rule keeps parent committees in place. Parents can also serve on policy councils.

HEALTH The standards clarify that programs must offer family education on issues such as the harm of tobacco use and lead exposure and the negative health consequences of sugar-sweetened beverages.

ELIGIBILITY Programs must explicitly look for and support the enrollment of children who are homeless or in foster care. Programs must also put a priority on 3-year-olds, infants, and toddlers if they operate in a service area with high-quality publicly funded prekindergarten.

PROGRAM STRUCTURE The final rules maintain home-based programs as an option for 4-year-olds, but it cannot be the only option provided by a Head Start grantee. The proposed rules would have limited that option to infants and toddlers served through Early Head Start.

COACHING The new standards replace “intermittent workshops and conferences” with a coordinated system of professional development, including individualized coaching for all educators, including family child-care providers.

EXPULSION The standards state that a child cannot be expelled from a program because of behavior. Suspensions are also to be severely limited.

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

By 2021, most center-based Head Start programs for 4-year-olds must serve children for 1,020 hours per school year, or the equivalent of approximately six hours a day for a 180-day school year. That’s a big change for those programs that were running on the current minimum of 3½ hours a day and 128 days per year.

Those Head Start programs that want to run a double session will have to ask federal officials for permission to do so.

“Research has shown us that children who spend more time in the classroom learn more and have better social skills than their peers,” said Sylvia Burrell, the HHS secretary, at a press conference unveiling the new plans. “Ultimately, they’re better prepared for kindergarten, and thanks to this change, more children will have that strong foundation.”

Federal officials had originally said they wanted to see Head Start preschool programs move to a six-hour-per-day, 180-day school year. And that portion of the proposed rules, officially called the Head Start Performance Standards, drew strong reservations from some Head Start officials. They said that they wanted to keep to the program available to more children through double sessions, that they didn’t have the staff or space to lengthen the school day and year, or that their local school districts are not in session for 180 days each year.

But Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, said her advocacy group also wanted to offer potential solutions. The group suggested the shift to 1,020 hours, which was accepted.

“If the goal of the change was kids spending more hours in Head Start, how would that look and how would that work, without it being in the rigid format that was proposed?” Vinci asked.

Changing Landscape

Many of the other changes in the new rules reflect the field’s evolving knowledge of how young children learn, as well as the changing early-childhood landscape.

For example, when Head Start was formed, it would have been the only publicly funded preschool option for many families in poverty. But with more states and cities financing preschool programs, Head Start grantees are being asked to focus their efforts on children ages 3 and younger if high-quality public prekindergarten is available.

Head Start programs are also being asked to take a closer look at chronic absenteeism. The previous standards outlined steps that programs needed to take if overall attendance dropped below a certain threshold. The new rules require grantees to look not just at overall attendance but also at the attendance of individual children. Chronic absenteeism in preschool has been linked in some research to poor performance once a child starts elementary school.

The new rules also reiterated the program’s goal to serve the most vulnerable children, by noting that Head Start programs have to reach out to homeless children or those in foster care. Children in those situations will also be provided special help in transitioning to other programs in the community if they move out of a program’s service area.

Expanding on the issue of suspensions and expulsions, a priority of the Obama administration, the standards codify a ban on expulsion for behavior that was already a general Head Start practice. Suspensions are also to be used only rarely.

One area in which federal officials backed away from a proposed change was in the formation of parent committees. Each individual Head Start program has a parent committee that provides feedback on local activities, and the proposed rules said that programs should be able to devise other options for parent leadership without the need for a committee.

But a strong focus on family engagement has been a part of Head Start from the beginning.

The final rules restored the committees. “It was not our intent to diminish the role of parents in the [proposed rules],” the department said.

Cutting Red Tape

Overall, the new performance standards meet many of the goals supported by the National Head Start Association, said Vinci. Also important, she said, is that the rules have been streamlined, paring away about 30 percent of the 1,400 regulations that existed before, and rearranging them so that they are easier to understand.

Although the new rules allow HHS to suspend implementation of some of the changes if congressional funding doesn’t come through to meet the $1 billion pricetag, officials are optimistic.

“We’ve had great bipartisan support from Congress on our program,” said Linda Smith, the deputy assistant secretary for early-childhood development at HHS. (Congress authorized a $570 million increase for the program for fiscal 2016.) “We look forward to that continuing into the future.”


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