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Insights into Head Start Enrollment Barriers

Nationally, many Early Head Start and Head Start programs are struggling with enrollment. In a new blog post, Mark Koski explores seven themes from Start Early’s research on factors that impact enrollment in Early/Head Start programs.

Mark Koski October 25, 2023
  • Early Learning and Care
  • Policy and Systems
  • Research
  • Blog

Head Start programs across the country are facing an enrollment crisis exacerbated by the pandemic and a persistent staffing shortage. According to a NIEER report, Head Start programs enrolled around 257,000 fewer children (a 33% decline) during the 2020-21 program year than they did in 2018-19. Numerous families made other arrangements for their children. Many centers had to reduce the number of classrooms they operated and struggled to find and retain qualified staff – leaving remaining staff with less capacity to support recruitment.

Although enrollment numbers have started to rebound in recent years, the disruptions and challenges exacerbated by the pandemic continue to plague Head Start programs. As of February of this year, NHSA reports that under-enrollment is a big problem for many programs, with current enrollment relative to funded enrollment at roughly 79% for Head Start and 81% for Early Head Start nationally. Many Head Start programs are scrambling to rebuild their capacity and recruit more families to enroll with a looming threat of funding cuts if they are unable to fill slots. The innovations and lessons learned from Head Start programs during this time may also provide ideas for leaders of other publicly funded early learning programs and systems – like home visiting – that may also be looking to ensure families are aware of and able to access and enroll in these critical services.

Also, it is worth noting that recruitment, eligibility, and enrollment barriers occur at numerous levels. The research discussed in this blog focuses on challenges at the local and program level. To learn more about national trends and Head Start in general, check out this post.

Recent Research Provides Insight Into Key factors Affecting Enrollment

In January 2022, Start Early embarked on a new interdisciplinary project, funded by the Vivo Foundation, to understand barriers to Head Start enrollment in Chicago Head Start programs. The multi-year project sought to address a key challenge: improve recruitment and enrollment to ensure more eligible children and their families receive high-quality Head Start supports.

In the first phase of the project, researchers used a human-centered design approach to understand the current state of recruitment efforts and experiences from a staff and family perspective. They surveyed Head Start staff most knowledgeable about recruitment and enrollment and conducted interviews with families.

Findings suggest strategies to increase enrollment:

Action Area 1: Reduce barriers to entry for families and create welcoming environments.
Systems leaders need to be aware of hidden barriers that families may face, including confusing or burdensome eligibility requirements, lengthy wait times, and a first impression that programs have a regimented, transactional, and unwelcoming approach to families. Such barriers might be mitigated by:

  • Addressing the stigma and hurdles that families feel by creating warm and welcoming environments. Program leaders and staff need support to understand and address the stigma that some families may feel around demonstrating and documenting their eligibility for EHS/HS services. Staff also need to be prepared to be upfront with parents about expectations and timelines; yet still warm and inviting.
  • Clarifying eligibility requirements so parents and staff know what is needed. Eligibility requirements and timelines from application to enrollment are not always clear to families and the paperwork required can be burdensome and invasive for some parents given the amount of personal information requested.

Action Area 2: Support Head Start Centers to communicate about program effectiveness and benefits. Parents are interested in high quality, child-centric programs. Programs and systems need to find more effective ways to communicate program benefits and quality. This might be achieved by:

  • Digital marketing. Programs need support to build an online presence that is accurate, appealing, and accessible (e.g., free of unfamiliar jargon, translated into families’ home languages) because most families start their search for information online. The lack of such digital information may inadvertently create barriers for families.
  • Clarifying availability of programs that meet families’ needs. Many working families want full-day programs and need easier access to information about program availability and qualification requirements. Messaging should also highlight other important areas for families, including proximity, safety, and cleanliness.
  • Highlighting the research supporting early childhood education and program quality. Parents need more assurance that Head Start programs meet their personal priorities and standards, especially in the providing high-quality early learning experiences by credentialed teachers. Highlighting the evidence of Head Start’s documented impact and value could help encourage parents to enroll in Head Start programs.

Programs Cannot Address These Challenges Alone

As a next step in this project, Start Early staff have partnered with several Head Start programs to test new strategies for reaching, recruiting, and supporting families – including though more effective communication strategies and employing a relationship-based approach. However, program-level efforts alone are likely insufficient to address this systemic, national challenge; systems leaders have a key role to play, including not only supporting scaling of the efforts described above, but in solving other contributing issues to this challenge, like workforce recruitment and retention. In addition, the lessons learned from Head Start programs in meeting enrollment goals may also be useful to leaders across other parts of the early childhood system as they seek to increase accessibility to other critical early childhood services and supports, from home visiting to child care subsidy.

Numerous teams across Start Early are focused on the challenges of Head Start enrollment this year. Be on the lookout for more details, including a report on strategies to increase enrollment and a digital marketing guide, in the coming months.

This blog post was co-authored by Amanda Stein, Managing Director, Research & Evaluation at Start Early. 

About the Author

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Mark Koski

Senior Program Manager

In this role, Mark supports the implementation of human-centered design consulting, the Family Centered Design program, and the Reflectable tool to support children, families, and educators/leaders in the early childhood field.

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