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New Report Details Role Head Start Plays in Country's Rural Communities

Many rural counties would be without any child-care centers were it not for Head Start, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress, which details the role the federal early-childhood education program plays in rural areas across the country.

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"Rural families in poverty face their own particular challenges that may be different than those in metro areas or even in the suburbs," said Rasheed Malik, a CAP senior policy analyst and the co-author of the report, released Tuesday. "What Head Start is able to do that's really unique is that it brings a lot of services to them in a centralized hub."

While Head Start serves poor families throughout the country, the need is particularly acute in rural areas where poverty is generally greater. The report notes that more than 29 percent of rural children under the age of 5 live in poverty, compared with only 23 percent of young children in metropolitan areas.

In addition to early-childhood education, Head Start also provides benefits such as health and developmental screenings, dental care, and job training.

In rural areas, services like these, including early-childhood education, tend to be harder to find and in many cases harder to access.

Prior CAP research found that small towns and rural areas with below-average median family incomes faced critical child-care shortages. Researchers found that 3 out of 5 rural Americans live in what are known as child-care deserts, and in these communities a third of the child-care centers are funded by Head Start.

"Without Head Start, rural families would have a lot less access to center-based child care as well as the great social services and family services that it provides," said Malik.

The need for these services in rural areas is great, as this population tends to have less access to medical care. The report notes that young children in rural areas are less likely to be up-to-date on immunizations than their peers in metropolitan areas.

The report also notes that Head Start serves children in some of the counties most affected by the opioid addiction crisis, which is predominately a problem in rural areas. The authors cite a 2017 statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed drug overdose deaths in rural areas surpassing those in metropolitan areas.

"Head Start, because it's been out there for so long, really has this built-in infrastructure for service delivery and can adapt very well to the needs of the community," said Malik. "In places that have really been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, there's a real responsiveness from Head Start."

Malik says the program helps connect parents with substance abuse treatment or prevention services, and this is happening more in rural areas than metropolitan areas.

Rural Head Start Challenges

Despite all of the work Head Start does in rural areas, the program does face special challenges in communities outside of large, urban centers. The report lists finding staff and providing transportation as two of the biggest issues Head Start directors face in these communities.

Malik says transportation is an essential component for centers serving rural counties. He cited Head Start centers in states with wide-open spaces such as Alaska, Montana, and Nebraska where directors stress the need for it.

"Often, families may be sharing one car for two parents," said Malik. "There's just not the ability to drive and drop off their child at the center. They told us if they don't have transportation services they're just not going to have a program."

And buses don't come cheap. Malik says it can cost $50-60,000 dollars a program year just to operate, and then the center is required to hire a driver and a monitor for the bus.

Due to the odd hours required it can be hard to find people to fill these positions. Malik says finding staff for rural-based Head Start programs is a problem in general.

"These are low-density areas where there's maybe not a big pool of folks with the specific credentials and qualifications that a Head Start center in a city or metro area will be able to draw from," said Malik.

He says these centers often rely on former Head Start parents and help them get the necessary credentials.

The report also notes that programs in remote areas often have added expenses due to where they're located. Things like bringing in health services and having to fly in staff and supplies can really add up.

Still, Malik says he's encouraged by Congress' plan to spend more on Head Start. Last month's ominbus spending bill raises Head Start funding by $610 million.

"We think of that as just a start, as [a] kind of down payment on what will eventually be needed because Head Start is really only reaching about 50 percent of the eligible child population," said Malik. "There's this wonderful infrastructure out there, and the more that we can provide them with the resources that they need the more that they'll be able to do."

The authors compiled this report with data from 10 states with a substantial number of rural counties, including Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota, and Texas. They also conducted telephone interviews with Head Start officials in Alasksa, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, and Nebraska.

Photo: Students eat lunch in a pre-K classroom at the Helen Sears Family Development Center in Owensboro, Ky., in 2013. -- Philip Scott Andrews for Education Week-File


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