Head Start Essay

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Head Start and Early Head Start and its program branches are comprehensive child development programs that serve children from birth to age five, pregnant women, and their families. As expressed in the Head Start Act, the purpose of the Head Start program is “to promote school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of low-income children through the provision, to low-income children and their families, of health, educational, nutritional, social, and other services that are determined, based on family needs assessments, to be necessary.” The comprehensive nature of the program strives to ensure educational benefits, economic benefits, health benefits, and law enforcement benefits. This entry records the program’s history and current implementation.

Program History

Head Start began during the mid-1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 authorized programs to help communities meet the needs of preschool-age children in disadvantaged circumstances. At the request of the federal government, a panel of child development experts created a report that became the framework of an eight-week summer program. This program, launched by the Office of Economic Opportunity, was named Project Head Start.

Head Start was and still is a comprehensive effort to help end poverty by providing services to children age three to school-entry age who are from low-income families. These services were intended to meet the emotional, health, nutritional, social, and psychological needs of its participants. In 1969, the Nixon Administration transferred Head Start from the Office of Economic Opportunity to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services). The 1994 reauthorization of the Head Start Act established the Early Head Start program for low-income families with infants and toddlers. In total, the Head Start program has enrolled more than 23 million children since it began in 1965.

Today’s Efforts

Today Head Start is a well-established program administered by the Head Start Bureau, the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Programs are locally administered by community-based nonprofit organizations and local education agencies. Head Start grants are awarded by Department of Health and Human Services regional offices, with the exception of American Indian and Migrant Head Start programs, which are administered in Washington, D.C. Today Head Start is the most successful, longest running, national school readiness program in the United States; it serves children and their families in rural and urban areas in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories. This includes American Indians and children in migrant families.

For fiscal year 2005, the $6.8+ billion budget provided services to 906,993 children, 57 percent of whom were four years old or older and 43 percent of whom were three years old or younger, at an average cost of $7,287 per child. More than 12 percent of the Head Start enrollment consisted of children with disabilities. Services for all children were provided by 1,604 different programs scattered across every state. Although paid staff numbers nearly 212,000 people, volunteers account for six times as many individuals working with children in these programs. Children are eligible to participate in Head Start if they are from low-income families or if their families are eligible for public assistance. The Head Start Act establishes income eligibility for participation in Head Start programs based on the poverty guidelines updated annually in the Federal Register by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Several subdivisions have been established over the years. Early Head Start serves infants and toddlers birth to age three and promotes healthy prenatal outcomes, promotes healthy family functioning, and enhances the development of infants and toddlers. Head Start itself is designed to foster healthy development in low-income children. Program grantees and delegate agencies deliver a range of services that are responsive and appropriate to each child’s and each family’s heritage and experience. These services encompass all aspects of a child’s development and learning. The Migrant and Seasonal Program provides consistent and high quality services to support healthy child development across the nation. These programs cater to the specific needs of children and families who move across the country with their families to pursue seasonal work in agriculture. The American Indian-Alaska Native Program provides children and families with comprehensive health, educational, nutritional, socialization, and other developmental services that promote school readiness. These services are tailored for preschool children (ages three to five) and infants and toddlers (birth through age three) who are American Indian or Alaska Native and are from impoverished circumstances.

In addition, the program provides services to meet particular needs. Full inclusion of children with disabilities is a required element of the Head Start program. Head Start legislation mandates that at least 10 percent of enrollment is available for children with disabilities. Current prevalence supersedes this requirement. All programs provide the full range of services to children with disabilities and their families.

A primary goal of Head Start is to ensure that all children begin school ready to learn. Educational standards are fully described in national performance standards. Activities are directed toward skill and knowledge domains and domain elements. Indicators of each child’s progress are incorporated in the program’s annual self-assessment. Head Start also recognizes the vital contributions made by parents and community members to education and development in their children and communities. Both groups are involved in the operation, governance, and evaluation of the program. Recognizing that health is a significant factor in each child’s ability to thrive and develop, Head Start provides health screenings and regular health checkups. The program teaches and incorporates good practices in oral health, hygiene, nutrition, personal care, and safety.


  1. Vinovkis, M. A. (2005). The birth of Head Start: Preschool education policies in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Head Start Information and Publication Center: http://www.headstartinfo.org
  3. National Head Start Association: http://www.nhsa.org

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