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Taking Stock of Head Start in Southern States

Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for children from low-income families, is sometimes thought of as a single entity, particularly in discussions of funding or new regulations

But Head Start is operated by individual grantees, which have some flexibility to make the program fit the needs of the communities where they operate. And those differences can be seen in an analysis of Head Start programs in southern states, written by the Institute for Child Success, an early-childhood policy and research organization based in Greenville, S.C. 

All Head Start programs are required to submit annual program information reports to the federal Office of Head Start. A Portrait of Head Start in the South draws on the reports that were submitted by Head Start programs operating in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

One interesting fact that the analysis turned up is that Head Start children in southern states are poorer than Head Start children nationwide—about 81 percent of enrollees in southern states qualified for Head Start because they came from families that have incomes equal to or below the federal poverty line, which in 2016 is $24,300 a year for a family of four. Nationally, about 72 percent of children are qualified for Head Start by virtue of their family's income.

Though Head Start is primarily for children from low-income families, there are a handful of other ways that children can qualify for the program. For example, being homeless or in foster care makes a child eligible. Head Start programs are also allowed to enroll children from slightly more affluent families if the program can show that they enrolled all income-eligible children first, or if it can be demonstrated that such children would benefit from the program. 

The difference between the southern and national numbers on enrollment based on poverty raises interesting policy questions, said Megan Carolan, the author of the report and the associate policy director for the Institute for Child Success. 

"It's a little hard to know exactly why it works out this way. Is there a more concentrated effort in the South to find kids from low-income families, as opposed to kids who qualify in some other ways? Do we want to see higher enrollment rates for foster care/homeless children, because we know they need stability?" Carolan said in an email. "To me, it's a starting point for a new conversation on how to reach kids who can benefit: we know there are generally more low-income children than Head Start can serve, so how can we do better?"

Other information from the analysis:

  • About a third of Head Start children attend programs located in southern states. Seventy-two percent of the Head Start programs in southern states are center-based and offered for a full school day and year, compared to less than 50 percent nationwide. The new Head Start performance standards require all center-based programs to move to a full day and full year by 2021.
  • About 5 percent of the South's children ages 2 to 5 were enrolled in Head Start, consistent with the national rate. But enrollment by state varies dramatically across the region. Mississippi has about 14 percent, or 23,000, of its children ages 2 to 5 in Head Start, the highest rate in the South. In contrast, Virginia has the region's lowest enrollment rate, at 3 percent, or about 13,000 children. 
  • About 31 percent of the children enrolled in Head Start in the south are of Hispanic origin, slightly less than the nationwide average of 39 percent. However, that varied widely from state to state—Texas's Head Start enrollment of Hispanic children was 74 percent, compared to 4 percent of enrollment in West Virginia. 
  • Teacher salaries in the southern states were below the national average. For example, Head Start teachers with a bachelor's degree earned nearly $27,900 a year, compared to the national average of nearly $30,900 nationwide for teachers with that education level.

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