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Educational Service Unit #13


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Head Start Programs

Program purpose and authorization:

The Head Start program originated as part of a comprehensive effort to combat poverty in America by providing children ages three to five years old with a range of services. Head Start approaches the needs of the whole child and the family by providing health, education, social services, and parent-community involvement in one program. Most Head Start programs serve children ages three to five years, but the program also supports Early Start for infants and toddlers, Parent/Child Centers, and programs that help children make the transition to elementary school. Despite its growth, current funding for Head Start can assist only half of the eligible young children. Recent amendments to the Head Start law include services to babies and toddlers.

General Questions and Answers

What are the components of a Head Start program?
Head Start takes a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of young children. There are four major components to Head Start:

  • Education: Providing a variety of learning experiences to help children grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally.
  • Health: Providing health services such as immunizations, dental, medical, and mental health, and nutritional services, and early identification of health problems.
  • Parent Involvement: Involving parents in the planning and implementation of activities. Parents serve on policy councils and committees that make administrative decisions; participate in classes and workshops on child development; and volunteer in the program.
  • Social Services: Provide outreach to families to determine what services they need.

Who receives funding to operate Head Start programs?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awards grants to local public and private non-profit agencies. The federal resources contribute 80 percent of the cost of a program and the community provides the remaining 20 percent. Some funding is set aside for training and technical assistance to local programs to help them meet the Program Performance Standards; for research, evaluation, and demonstrations of innovative program models; and required monitoring activities.

Which children are eligible for Head Start?
In order to participate in Head Start, the family income must fall below the federal poverty line. Local programs are allowed to serve up to 10 percent of the children with family incomes over the poverty line. Program must use ten percent of the spaces for children with disabilities.

Does the program serve infants and toddlers?
Yes. The 1994 reauthorization bill created the Early Head Start program. This program serves low-income families with children under age three and pregnant women. The program helps children develop physically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially. It provides parent education and services such as home visits, comprehensive health services, nutrition, and peer support groups for parents. Early Head Start projects coordinate with local Head Start programs so that children have a continuity of services as they grow older.

What are the requirements for ensuring quality programs?
In 1994, the reauthorized Head Start legislation included new requirements for ensuring quality. No Head Start grantee will continue to receive funds if it falls below a minimum quality level and fails to correct the deficiencies in a prompt manner. The 1994 reauthorization also revised the Head Start Performance Standards. The new rules build on emerging research and expertise of health professionals, focus on the importance of collaboration between Head Start programs and the broader community, and integrate new standards for infants and toddlers.

What qualifications are required for Head Start teachers and aides?
By September 30, 2013, at least half of all Head Start teachers in center-based programs must have an associate, baccalaureate, or advanced degree in Early Childhood Education or a degree in a related field, with pre-school teaching experience. If a classroom in a center-based program does not have a teacher with a degree in early childhood education, or a related field with experience in teaching preschool children, the teacher must have a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or a State awarded certificate for preschool teachers that meets or exceeds the requirements of a CDA credential. A Child Development Associate is an individual that has successfully completed a CDA assessment and has been awarded the CDA credential. The assessment involves providing documentation of training and experience in the early childhood care profession. This individual can meet the specific needs of children and work with parents and other adults to nurture children's physical, social, emotional and intellectual growth.

Early Head Start staff and Head Start staff working as teachers with infants and toddlers must meet the same requirements as teachers and staff within a center-based Head Start program.

For more information, contact:

Head Start Bureau
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Phone: (202) 401-9215


National Head Start Association
1651 Prince Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Phone 703-739-0875
Fax 703-739-0878