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Head Start's Acting Director Reflects on Program as 50th Anniversary Nears

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Ann Linehan, appointed the acting director of the Office of Head Start in December 2013, has more than 30 years of history with the federal preschool program for low-income children, starting as the executive director of a Head Start grantee serving communities in suburban Boston. She was also a regional Head Start manager and deputy director of the agency, which currently has a budget of $8 billion and serves more than a million infants, toddlers, young children, and pregnant women.

 She recently talked with Education Week about Head Start's strengths, struggles, and future as the program prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in May. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

To what do you attribute Head Start's staying power? 

I have been to probably hundreds of programs across the country, and when a Head Start program is a strong program, it really is an anchor for the community. And, I do think that Head Start has an amazing capacity to make parents feel more confident. Some of them who have had very hard times feel like they're not being judged, but they're being embraced for their strengths.

Does the public recognize the importance of Head Start in supporting parents?

Within the Head Start community, people are acutely aware of the importance of the parent or family. I think outside of the Head Start community, people may not fully appreciate how deep that is. I could tell you hundreds of stories of where Head Start transformed parents' lives. I think we relied on our anecdotal stories for many years, but I do think research is much more interested in looking at the role of parents and the impacts of Head Start on the family.

What changes have you seen in Head Start over your time working with the program?

There are no longer mom-and-pop operations. I think what we've seen evolve over the years is the sophistication, which is really demanded by the size and the funding. We've really needed to have organizations that had strong governance, good internal controls, and were working for higher teacher qualifications.

You have described the designation renewal process—where all grantees will shift to five-year funding cycles instead of the open-ended funding periods of the past, and low-performing programs are now required to compete for funding against other community groups—as a "seismic cultural shift" for the organization. How so?

I was also a Head Start grantee in the [1980s]. And I will tell you, we kind of thought we had the money in perpetuity. And I think that this shook the Head Start community—thinking, wow, you have programs who have had money for 45, 46 years, and all of a sudden, they may be subject to recompetition.

It has prompted everybody's attention, to look at themselves in ways that [they] may not have been in the past. When you know that you may have to compete, you want to make sure that you are running the best operation possible. In general, everybody thought that competition was good, except if it happened to me. And in the beginning, [some grantees] really could not believe that after so many years of service, and, in their minds, very big contributions to the community, that they had to recompete. And people were angry. 

 [Those program leaders] can now reflect and say, "You know what? I had the leverage to go to the governing body and say, 'We need to make these changes.'"

What has the Office of Head Start learned after having completed two rounds of grant competition?

For OHS, getting all the funding announcements out, convening the panels to review the applications, making selections, then going through the transitions in a timely way changed the way we did business.  For grantees, they have a tight time frame, where they find out in spring if they're going to be refunded in July or if a new agency will take over. We made adjustments to minimize disruptions for children when a new agency was selected. I think in general, while the work has been tremendous, we feel this is positive for the Head Start community. 

In the first round of funding, there were not many successful applicants who were completely new to Head Start. What is Head Start doing to encourage new community groups to compete for Head Start funding?

What was very helpful this past year is the philanthropic community certainly got interested and committed their own resources in going in and really sitting down with community members. It could be anyone who was interested in hearing how a community could potentially come together and write a proposal.

We partnered with [the W.K. Kellogg Foundation], the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund, and the Toledo Foundation, and they hosted several community meetings. People who don't know Head Start may be a little bit timid in developing that first federal application, but we did see we had more competition in the communities where the philanthropic community was active.

Has Head Start made any changes in how programs are selected to compete? Some grantees have complained that the competition was triggered by relatively minor issues.

If you have a deficiency, you must recompete. And I think there were lots of people who said, "This really shouldn't be a deficiency." And I think there were others who felt, "How, if I only had one deficiency in the last 15 years, why didn't you look at my whole record?" But if the regulation says if you had a deficiency, that's it, you meet one of the seven conditions [for recompetition.]

[Note: In addition to certain deficiencies, grantees will also be required to compete for funding if they are in the bottom 10 percent of Head Start providers based on scores on the CLASS, an observational assessment of teacher and child interaction.]

If you're in the bottom 10 percent, you're in. Well, imagine the highest-scoring person in the 10 percent, next to the lowest-scoring person in the 90 percent. And it could be a fraction of a point. It could be 1/100th of a point. And someone could say that's not fair, that I'm in and they're not. But when you develop a system where you do have [a 10 percent cutoff,] that's always going to happen.

Head Start has increased the education level of its staff dramatically. How did it do that work?

In terms of preschool teachers, in 2002 only 30 percent of our Head Start teachers had a BA. Last year, 66 percent. It's been extraordinary how people have done it. We provide direct funding to grantees, [and] many of those grantees dedicated a large portion of those funds to support teachers obtaining their degrees. Now, the one complaint we have is that we train them and they stick around for a while, and then they get stolen by other folks.

There's this new effort underway, and I think it's very exciting, called Head Start University. And we're looking to launch this new effort to help Head Start staff who have college credit but have not yet finished their degree. This would help them complete their BA through high-quality online courses—these would be specially designed to give Head Start teachers the knowledge and skills they need to be in a position of really being an excellent early-childhood teacher. The Head Start University will begin a consortium with a number of higher education institutions in the fall; we have a lot of hope for the potential of what the Head Start University could do.

Head Start is setting aside money to support partnerships between Early Head Start and private child care. There have also been some funding announcements for a "birth to 5" pilot program. What does Head Start hope to accomplish through these efforts?

The big goal is to create a seamless service, birth to 5. We want parents to have quality choices throughout a child's development, before they enter public school. We know certainly that many states are expanding their investment in pre-K, and we always say to grantees, you should look at the community needs assessment. What is it that your community really needs in terms of Head Start services? As more children are served over time by pre-K programs, then we would use our existing funds to create more infant-toddler care.

What do you see in Head Start's future, both in new programs and in a reauthorization?

From this last reauthorization, it took us a little time to get the [designation renewal] regulations. We have an independent study being conducted by [the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute] and the Urban Institute, looking at our designation-renewal system. We're completely streamlining our performance standards, including our eligibility standards, and I think they will have certainly a positive impact.

There is so much we are doing to complete the last reauthorization. I am sure, as you talk to people in the community, everybody is telling you what they want us to do in the next reauthorization. At this point, we are learning, we are still evaluating, we are still implementing. We're going to have a lot of information to rely on that will inform those that are going to be sitting down at the table, figuring out what do we need to do differently and what do we need to do more of the same.

Photo: Ann Linehan, the acting director of Head Start. Handout/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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