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How many troubled Head Start programs are out there? Looking at ACF’s re-bid practices

Diligent grants.gov readers will occasionally see a bunch of notices for individual service areas for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Head Start Program. Recently, for example, a dozen Head Start RFPs were issued, for places like “Kent and Sussex Counties, Delaware” or “Bates, Cass, Cedar, Henry, St. Clair and Vernon Counties, Missouri.” I did some research on grantees in those areas and found that many Head Start programs in them had been taken over by something called the “Community Development Institute” (CDI) Head Start, which appears to be an ACF multi-area Head Start grantee whose job is to take over the miscreant Head Start programs and operate them until a new local operator can be found, wrangled, tackled, press-ganged, etc. To understand what’s going on, it’s necessary consider the long history of Head Start and its kin, Early Head Start.

Head Start, one of the original “War on Poverty” programs, has been around since 1965; ACF says over 1 million children are enrolled in Head Start annually, and there are Head Start programs in most parts of inhabited America—urban, suburban and rural. Many Head Start programs are operated by the 1,000 or so Community Action Agencies (CAAs), another 1965 War on Poverty relic, funded through the DHHS Office of Community Services (OCS).

Head Start grantees, like HRSA-funded Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), aren’t guaranteed funding and must periodically compete in new RFPs processes. But not every area has a competent grantee in it—particularly in sparsely populated rural areas or extremely poor areas, where services are often most needed. We’ve worked on numerous projects for organizations that are working through various permutations of this problem, our favorite being a SAC applicant who forgot to apply for their Section 330 grant when their Service Area Competition (SAC) NOFO was open, causing the applicant’s HRSA program officer to call, after the deadline, to say, “Where is your application?” HRSA allowed a late application, which is unusual, and we were able to write their SAC proposal in less than a week. These aren’t ideal or recommended conditions, however.

Searching local news in many of the counties listed by ACF as needing new Head Start grantees yields articles about whatever is going on at these troubled Head Start grantees, but those local news articles lack detail. Still, the regularity with which ACF issue these service area level RFPs shows the challenges not just of getting a Head Start grant, but of running the program successfully. Overall, Head Start is one of the few federal grant-funded programs that shows up regularly in popular media in heartwarming feature stories about low-income kids learning in a nurturing environment—and that sometimes happens. Head Start has also been the subject of much research, which increases its visibility. The research has generated much debate about Head Start’s efficacy at improving educational outcomes for at-risk kids; given its long history, the grandparents or great grandparents of kids in Head Start today were also very likely were in Head Start. Intergenerational Head Start enrollment doesn’t necessarily argue for the program’s real impact, but we’ll leave discussions of “impact” for another post.

Head Start is as much a jobs program as it is an early childhood education program. Head Start grants fund tens of thousands of jobs for low-income folks to work as non-credentialed or lightly credentialed “teachers.” These jobs have traditionally been filled mostly by single moms, whose kids are usually enrolled in Head Start. Thus, the local Head Start programs meet two critical needs in low-income communities—heavily subsidized early childhood education (or “child care” for the cynics) and reliable, easy-entry jobs with some career-ladder potential. Thus, when a Head Start program goes under, it can be a real crisis in low-income and especially low-income rural areas, which is probably why ACF tries to use the Community Development Institute and similar outfits to plug gaps. If any readers have a good story to tell about recycling of Head Start grants, write a guest post and we’ll post it anonymously.

Need your Head Start, or any other proposal, written? Call us at 800.540.8906 ext. 2, or send an email to seliger@seliger.com.

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