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Commentary: A Head Start Program's Response to State-funded Pre-K.

The research, From Threat to Opportunity: A Head Start Program's Response to State-funded Pre-K, accurately depicts the challenges and opportunities that exist with the Head Start program as well as the viewpoint most lead education agencies take when initiating interagency collaboration. National studies and research frequently draw opposing conclusions about Head Start's impact. The Cato Institute and The Heritage Foundation have commissioned studies that suggest Head Start is ineffective, to a certain degree wasteful--and in some cases--have a negative impact on children. At the same time, numerous studies by prominent institutions suggest otherwise.

A 2010 United States Department of Health and Human Services study (Puma, Bell, Cook and Heid, 2010) that concluded that children enrolled in Head Start do see benefits. Three and four year olds see improvements in the cognitive, health and parenting domains however the benefits of Head Start at age four are largely absent by first grade. The Government Accountability Office (1998) concluded that there is insufficient research to draw conclusions about the impact of the national program.

After 47 years, no widely accepted body of research draws a reasoned conclusion about Head Start's outcomes. This is ultimately detrimental to the program's future. As school districts across the nation are being forced to make difficult budget decisions, administrators and politicians are asking whether the $170 billion (estimated since 1965) investment in Head Start has been worth it.

While the achievement gap between African American, Hispanic and White students, continues to trouble districts across the country, districts are searching for ways to close the gap and are focusing on early childhood education programs as a way to shrink it. By focusing on preparation, the theory of action is that more students will enter the system on grade level and ready to learn. A 2010 Annie E. Casey Foundation report found that students who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma when compared to proficient readers. The number rises when those kids also come from poverty.

As demand for quality preschool options and state funded preschool programs continue to expand and school districts across the country are doing more with less--while attempting to close the preparation gap--interagency collaboration becomes necessary for long-term program survival.

As the research suggests, some Head Start agencies have seized on this opportunity to improve service delivery and outcomes. In Charleston, South Carolina, the school district is now the lead agency in delivering Head Start and early Head Start services. The relationship between Head Start and the Charleston County School District represents a positive interagency collaboration. Between the state funded pre-k offerings and the new Head Start offerings, 80 full day classes are being offered in 43 schools. While it is too early to determine if service delivery and outcomes have improved, it is clear that additional socio-economically challenged children are being offered the opportunity to enroll in a pre-k program.

The challenges and benefits of interagency collaboration are well outlined in the research. Communication, commitment and leadership play critical roles in determining the success of interagency collaboration, especially when you are asking multiple administrators, teachers, community partners, parents and politicians for both programmatic and financial buy in. In addition to the challenges outlined in the research, more in depth discussion on merging funding streams while addressing regulatory differences should be considered.


Puma, M., Bell, S., Cook, R., and Heid, C. (2010). Head Start impact study final report, prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from executive_summaryfinal.pdf

General Accountability Office. (1998). Head Start: Research Insufficient to Assess Program Impact (GAO Publication: GAO/T-HEHS-98-126). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. Baltimore, MD. Retrieved from 2010KCSpecReport/AEC report_color_highres.pdf


Charleston County School District

Jason Sakran works for the Office of Communications and Strategic Planning for the Charleston County School District. Previously he served as public and legislative affairs manager for the Educational Testing Service and the Committee for Education Funding in Washington, DC. Before ETS, Jason served as the communications and legislative manager for the Committee for Education Funding in Washington, DC.
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Author:Sakran, Jason A.
Publication:Journal of Health and Human Services Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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