Head Start a lifeline for families in rural communities

Head Start has fascinated me for some time, starting with my time working as a literacy volunteer in a Head Start classroom in Connecticut as part of my Work-Study job during undergrad. It was, by and large, the perfect position for me – for a few hours a week, I got to leave campus, read to kids, and play around with them.

As I stumbled into the field of early childhood in graduate school – again thanks to a Work-Study position, this time with the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers – Head Start came up again and again. During my years at NIEER, we saw updates to the Head Start Impact study which were used by some who oppose the program as evidence that it does not work. The truth seems much stickier – Head Start has some academic impacts, which may fade over time; it develops social-emotional skills which resurface throughout a child’s lifetime and contribute to long-term outcomes; and, it provides crucial connections to programs and services for low-income families. Community connections are not an accident of the program, but by design; Head Start is run through Health and Human Services, not Education, which is the first hint of its broader goals.

And so many in the field – but especially those families who have been served by Head Start – were not surprised by the recent Center for American Progress report on the essential role of Head Start in rural areas. It is a crucial report for putting the spotlight on areas often left behind in our policy debates, as I explore at the Institute for Child Success’s blog:

“It is easy, sometimes, for cities to dominate the conversation on education policy in America, especially in the world of early childhood. In recent years, we have seen major preschool initiatives as central policy issues from New York to Seattle and in between. Cities, with their high student populations and larger pools of potential teachers, are an easy poster child for early childhood innovation. But a new report from the Center for American Progress makes clear what residents outside cities have known for years – the unique needs of families in rural communities are a tough fit for early childhood services.”

I’ve had the opportunity to explore data sets on Head Start in the South for a paper at ICS as well as to contribute to the Rural Trust’s report on the state of rural education. But this report from CAP fills a huge hole in the literature with this deep dive. Combining information from Head Start’s Program Information Report database with USDA data on rural geographic areas is a tough methodological lift – we had considered it for the Head Start in the South paper but ultimately decided it was too heavy a lift for the scope of that project. The CAP researchers do a huge service for the field and ensure that the voices of rural families are centered in our early childhood policies.

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