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Start Early’s Journey with Head Start: Bridging Opportunity Gaps for Children

In honor of Head Start Awareness Month, Start Early reflects on its longstanding partnership with Head Start and the pivotal role Head Start has played in shaping our work.

Diana McClarien October 18, 2023
  • Early Learning and Care
  • Health and Development
  • Blog

For over 40 years Start Early has worked tirelessly to advance quality early learning and support for children and families. We know that starting early has the biggest impact on a child’s development and that Head Start and Early Head Start are an essential part of our work to help all children thrive.

In honor of Head Start Awareness Month, we spoke with Diana McClarien, our vice president of the Early/Head Start Network, to share how our relationship with Head Start began, the benefits of the program and our hopes for the future of Head Start and Early Head Start.

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The first five years are a critical window to shape lifelong success. Act now to ensure children have the best start in life through quality early learning.

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Start Early & Head Start

Head Start Blocks logoStart Early’s partnership with Head Start began in 1985, coinciding with the launch of the Beethoven Project, a groundbreaking program developed to provide wraparound services – including early education options – to families in Chicago’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood. Initially starting off as a grantee of Head Start funding, Start Early has since developed a deep, decades-long relationship with Head Start, that has culminated in a Start Early, Early/Head Start Network, two directly operated programs, and the aligned goals of delivering equitable access to high-quality early learning and care for children and families in the areas in which we operate.

As our network now stands, we partner closely with several local community-based agencies, including our two directly operated programs – Educare Chicago and Healthy Parents & Babies – delivering not only early learning services but also crucial components like doula, home visiting, nutrition, family, health and wellness services. With Black and Hispanic children representing a disproportionate share of children living in disinvested areas, Head Start programs also play a crucial role in addressing opportunity gaps in school readiness for children facing systemic barriers.

Looking to the future, we will continue working in tandem with Head Start to best meet the needs of the families we serve and continue centering family and early childhood education provider voices and expertise in all areas of our work. We are also working to expand our network reach by partnering with new agencies to deliver Head Start services throughout Chicago and our surrounding suburbs and are actively expanding our efforts to address the teaching shortage in the early education field. Through this approach, we hope we can continue providing the best-in-class early education and services so that our children and families within our communities and programs can thrive.

In the 2022-2023 school year, Start Early served over 1,900 people through Head Start & Early Head Start programs, including 39 pregnant women.

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Head Start 101

Learn more about Head Start’s crucial role in promoting early childhood education, school readiness and comprehensive support for children and families across the country.

What is Head Start?

Head Start (HS) is a nation-wide, federally funded compensatory preschool education program. Head Start and Early Head Start (a division of Head Start specifically focused on children aged zero to three) are designed to promote school readiness in infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Head Start also serves pregnant women with a range of prenatal supports and postpartum educational opportunities.

Since 1965, Head Start has long been considered a premier model for early childhood programs (Ramey & Ramey, 2010), and has aimed to foster development and school readiness skills for children from primarily low-income communities.

With Black and Hispanic children representing a disproportionate share of children in poverty, Head Start programs act as a lever to address longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness outcomes.

Children that participate in Head Start programs make tremendous progress in the areas of language, literacy, and math, and achieve average scores related to letter-word knowledge by the end of their first year (Aikens et al., 2013; Bloom and Weiland, 2015).

The benefits are even more robust for children enrolled in Early Head Start, with higher kindergarten readiness scores and increased social-emotional, language, and cognitive development than children who never attend a Head Start program. (Love et al., 2002)

Head Start as a Model

Head Start programs are typically located in high-poverty areas and provide comprehensive services that address the needs of the whole child, including their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Many Head Start and Early Head Start programs are located within nonprofit organizations. These nonprofit organizations are uniquely positioned to help identify child care needs and develop workable solutions for families. They can also connect families with additional services through their network of local partners, who are able to leverage alternative sources of funding.

Invest in a Child’s Earliest Years

The first five years are a critical window to shape lifelong success. Act now to ensure children have the best start in life through quality early learning.

Donate Now

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Celebrating Head Start Awareness Month

As part of Head Start Awareness Month, our Early/Head Start Network will launch a Child Development Associate® (CDA) program for parents that have children in Start Early and partner sites. The CDA Credential™ is an important credential for early childhood professionals, as obtaining it allows them to take the next step in their career.

We hope to engage with Head Start parents everywhere to elevate their perspectives and gain insights on the best ways to support their children. We know that when teachers and parents are aligned in building a solid foundation, children can thrive.

Join us this October as we celebrate and promote Head Start on social media! Use the #HeadStartAwareness hashtag in your posts to highlight the program.

About the Author

Diana McClarien, Vice President, Early/Head Start Network at Start Early

Diana McClarien

Vice President, Early/Head Start Network

Diana McClarien leads Start Early’s Early/Head Start Network, working with local community-based agencies to deliver comprehensive supports that address the immediate needs of families, while also helping them plan for future success.

More About Diana

More Like This


  • Bloom, H. S. and Weiland, C., Quantifying Variation in Head Start Effects on Young Children’s Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Skills Using Data from the National Head Start Impact Study (March 31, 2015).
  • Love, J. M., Kisker, E. E., Ross, C. M., Schochet, P. Z., Brooks-Gunn, J., Paulsell, D., Boller, K., Constantine, J., Vogel, C., Sidle Fuligni, A., Brady-Smith, C. (2002). Making a difference in the lives of infants and toddlers and their families: The impacts of early Head Start. Volumes I-III: Final technical report and appendixes and local contributions to understanding the programs and their impacts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.

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