Proposed changes to Head Start are aimed at improving programs by having longer days, a longer year and more focus on children's academic growth. The cost: an estimated $1 billion. Credit: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The federal department that oversees Head Start wants to require full-day programs that run the entire school year – a significant change that would need a substantial boost in funding to avoid the loss of teaching jobs and slots for children.

Under the proposed changes, most Head Start programs would be required to run for 180 days a year, up from the current 128 days, and six hours a day, up from the minimum three and a half hours now—a move that would make programs more attractive for working parents.

Other proposed changes include requiring programs to collect and analyze data on children’s achievement; requiring teachers to use assessment data in their lesson planning (a strategy many already use); an end to expulsions for behavior problems and limits on suspensions; and allowing programs to reserve slots for children who are homeless or in foster care.

Head Start curriculum would need to be aligned to updated early learning outcomes from the federal government and state early learning standards. That wouldn’t be a shift in Illinois, according to Theresa Hawley, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, who said the state has long worked to make sure the curriculum is standards-based.

Sylvia Burwell, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary, said the proposed changes– the first in 17 years, built on the work of researchers, experts and focus groups – would improve the quality of programs. Burwell made the announcement this week at Nia Family Center, a Head Start provider in West Humboldt Park.

In Chicago, nearly 21,000 children were enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start programs during the 2013-14 school year, the latest federal data available. Most attended programs through the city.

Head Start programs could apply for a waiver to create a “locally-designed variation” if the program works with research experts to show the model is effective for the community it serves. Waivers could be sought for teacher-child ratios, class size and program length.

Department officials estimate that enacting the changes would cost about $1 billion. President Obama requested an extra $1.5 billion for Head Start in his 2016 budget, an amount that the department said would cover the costs without cutting teaching jobs or slots. However, the budget resolution adopted by Congress in May doesn’t specify how much money Head Start will get.

Given Chicago and the state’s finances, it would be “completely impossible” to expand Head Start without that federal funding, says Maria Whelan, the president and CEO of the Chicago-based advocacy group Illinois Action for Children.

Federal officials estimated that enacting the changes without extra funding would cut the number of slots by about 126,000 and reduce the number of teaching jobs by about 9,400.

The 50-year-old Head Start program promotes school readiness for children from low-income families. Head Start serves 3- and 4-year-olds, while Early Head Start helps infants and toddlers under 3, as well as pregnant mothers.

Change to benefit parents, English-learners

Though Mayor Rahm Emanuel already had plans to expand the number of full-day preschool programs over the next five years using Head Start funding, the federal change would significantly ramp up the expansion.

About five in 10 Chicago children enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start attended part-day programs in centers and schools last school year, and about four in 10 attended full-day programs in centers and schools.

At Chicago Public Schools – the largest Head Start provider in the city – most children attend a part-day program. According to federal data, about 6,900 of the 7,100 children in CPS were in part-day programs.

Zerlina Smith, a parent who sits on the CPS committee for Head Start policy, said in the past new full-day Head Start programs were usually proposed in communities with large numbers of parents who worked or went to school – leaving behind neighborhoods with high unemployment rates. The proposed rule changes could help improve equity.

The full-day requirement also would benefit children who are English-language learners, Hawley said. Extra time in the classroom would give them more time to work on their home language, she said, which would improve their cognitive development, boosting their chances for long-term academic success.

The federal government has proposed that after the rule becomes final – it has to go through a 60-day comment period and Congress has the right to review it – the provisions would take effect in one year.

Finding teachers, facilities

Advocates say even if the federal government comes through with the funding, there will be two main challenges: Finding enough high-quality teachers and locating facilities appropriate for early education.

Hawley says even before the Head Start proposal was announced, the state knew it had to work on workforce development.

“This is sort of one more step in the direction we’re working on,” she said. “No doubt it’s a lot of work and will take a lot of effort and attention and focus.”

The state could look at offering more scholarships to encourage teachers to get the appropriate degrees and credentials, she added.

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, the education director at the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum, says workforce needs will be especially great in the city’s Latino neighborhoods, where there is a high need for bilingual early childhood educators who understand the cultural and language needs of their students.

Pacione-Zayas says given CPS’s financial issues it’s unclear if it would be able to provide the kind of wraparound services necessary to run a full-day Head Start program, such as providing enough social workers and school psychologists.

There’s also the issue of teacher pay and hiring competition. Right now, early education school-based sites often offer better salary and benefit packages than community-based sites because they follow the pay scale for union teachers, Pacione-Zayas said. Sometimes preschool teachers get experience at community-based sites and then “get poached” by a school site.

Pacione-Zayas said it would be challenging to find enough classroom space for expanded Head Start in certain areas of the city, especially on the Southwest and Northwest Sides in largely Latino neighborhoods, where there is “huge demand and limited facilities.”

Plus there’s a whole host of licensing regulations that providers have to follow before they can open an early childhood center, Whelan says. Programs have to meet square footage requirements and install sometimes complex and costly alarm systems to meet safety requirements.

“It’s not like you can walk into a building and say, ‘Oh this works,’” Whelan said. “You want it to be a place children want to be.”

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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