General Education

A Head Start Program Overview: Eligibility, Outcomes, and More

A Head Start Program Overview: Eligibility, Outcomes, and More
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Kathryn Hazelett, JD, LLM profile
Kathryn Hazelett, JD, LLM May 14, 2015

Head Start programs help children from low-income backgrounds achieve ambitious academic goals. Find out whether your child may be a good fit for this program.

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We all want our children to be set for success and have a head start in life. After all, early successes compound. It’s easy to imagine why this early-education program, established in 1965, has made such a difference in the lives of generations of students.

A report from the Brookings Institute explains that Head Start, the eight-week comprehensive child development program, was “…created in an era when our nation became acutely aware of the serious toll that poverty takes on the lives of young children.” The first Head Start classrooms provided preschool-aged children (ages three to five) from low-income families with services to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs.

Now, Head Start provides a wide range of services for millions of young learners. The following outlines what to expect from Head Start, who is eligible to enroll, and how participants improve their skills in the program.

The Race: An Overview of Services

Since 1965, Head Start has served more than 30 million children, growing from an eight-week summer program to one that now includes Early Head Start (for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers), as well as full-day and year-round programming. Currently, Head Start and Early Head Start serve more than one million children annually.

One of the program’s main goals is to emphasize school readiness, which means preparing kids for the kindergarten classroom. This includes teaching children language and literacy skills, developing social and emotional competencies, and improving cognition. Families are an integral part of their children’s education within Head Start; the program highlights the [role of parents] as each child’s first and most important teachers.

_For a supporting view, read this opinion piece by Noodle Expert Dr. Marco Clark, Why Parental Involvement Is the Most Important Part of a Child’s Education._

In addition to preparing children for kindergarten, Head Start and Early Head Start provide services focused on health (including screenings and follow-ups), nutrition, family goal-setting, social services, and services for children with disabilities.

This comprehensive package of services is individualized to support a child’s growth, and it is designed to be responsive to each child’s and family’s ethnic, cultural, and linguistic circumstances.

Head Start programs can be found in child care centers, schools, or family child care homes. Early Head Start is provided for at least six hours per day; Head Start preschool may be half-day or full-day. Home-based visiting is also an option for families. In home-based visiting, weekly in-home services are coupled with a twice-monthly group-learning experience facilitated by Head Start staff.

Getting to Know the Course: Eligibility Information

Eligibility is generally limited to children from birth to age five from low-income families (as determined by the federal government’s Poverty Guidelines). Some exceptions include children in foster care, homeless children, and children receiving Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Head Start programs may also enroll up to 10 percent of children from families with higher incomes, and programs may enroll an additional 35 percent of children from families whose incomes are above the Poverty Guidelines, but below 130 percent of those guidelines.

There is a lot of variability in the guidelines, so if you have questions, the Head Start folks encourage you to call your local Head Start provider program to assist you in researching your options.

Head Start programs, operated by more than 1,500 community-based organizations, can be found in every U.S. state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories, including American Indian, Alaskan Native, and migrant/seasonal communities. Grantees include school districts, universities, community health centers, tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporation, city and county governments, and Community Action Agencies.

To find a center near you, you can either call the Head Start Information and Communications Center (1-866-763-6481) or use the Head Start Program Locator Tool.

You can find statistics pertaining to the age, ethnicity, and race of participants on the Office of Head Start National Snapshot.

The Big Finish: Outcomes and Evaluation

Recently, Head Start was thoroughly evaluated and researched by the Department of Human Health and Services. The resulting detailed report assessed various facets of the program, which provided fodder for advocates and detractors alike.

Advocates for Head Start point to its long history as a provider of services for the whole child. The researchers found mild or moderate gains for three- and four-year-olds after only one year of involvement. Yasmina Vinci of Reuters writes that the findings of the study clearly show that “… Head Start prepares children for kindergarten. There also is overwhelming evidence, from hundreds of studies over four decades, that Head Start children benefit from the program throughout their lives.”

Opponents of the program counter that, according to the data, the program “has failed to improve academic outcomes for the children it was designed to help.” They point to the flattening of the benefits seen for kindergarten readiness by third grade. The lack of long-lasting effects shown in the report was concerning to many who are hesitant about supporting the program.

Nevertheless, there may be other benefits that existing data do not capture. For instance, supporters contend that the long-term payoffs of early education — in the form of advanced education, employment, and earning potential — “can happen even when there is no immediate evidence that children are doing better in school.” Many also believe that the loss of effects witnessed in elementary school is more indicative of problems in the public school system than problems with Head Start.

_Interested in learning more about this view? Read Noodle Expert Fran Spero’s opinion piece Why Head Start Will Work…If K–12 Education Improves. You can also use Noodle to search for preschools near you._


About Us. Retrieved May 8, 2015, from Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center.

Advisory Committee on Head Start Research and Evaluation Final Report. (2012). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

CLASP: Policy Solutions That Work for Low-Income People. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from CLASP.

Head Start Impact Evaluation Report Finally Released. Retrieved May 8, 2015, from The Heritage Foundation.

History of Head Start. Retrieved May 8, 2015, from Office of Head Start.

Ramey, C., & Landesman Ramey, S. Head Start: Strategies to Improve Outcomes for Children Living in Property. Retrieved May 8, 2015, from Brookings Institute.

Vinci, Y. Does Head Start work? Retrieved May 8, 2015, from Reuters.


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