Partnering to Reach Our Youngest Learners

Blog Post
Dec. 15, 2014

By the time most children reach their third birthdays, they are able to run easily, carry on a conversation, take turns playing a game, and even express empathy for their friends. The growth and transformation that occurs during the first three years of life is remarkable–and brain science reflects this. Eighty percent of brain growth happens between the ages of zero and three, and according to neuroscientists these years mark a critical period for physical, social, and language development. And because this is also a stretch of time in which children are especially impacted by their surroundings, it is imperative to foster supportive environments that nurture children and promote their healthy development.

Last week at the White House Summit on Early Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the long-awaited results of a grant competition that aims to do just that. The first-ever Early Head Start Expansion and Child Care Partnership Grants are intended to support working families across the country by expanding access to high-quality child care and home visiting programs for pregnant women and children from birth through age three.

“As the mother of young kids, early learning is a big part of my personal life,”  HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell proudly said as she announced the grants, “We’re awarding over $435 million in 234 different grants to help ensure more children across the nation will benefit from high-quality early childhood efforts.” The preliminary winners of these grants represent 49 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Mariana Islands. (The awards are preliminary because HHS is in the process of negotiating with agencies; the final awards are expected to be given out by the end of March.)

Early Head Start (EHS), created in 1994, provides comprehensive early intervention services to low-income women, infants, and toddlers, and research suggests that those who participate benefit in multiple domains. Last year EHS served approximately 6,000 pregnant women and 150,000 children, totaling only four percent of eligible families. As a result, advocates and policymakers have been trying to expand the program and reach more families. The EHS Expansion grants and EHS-Child Care Partnerships awards are predicted to increase enrollment by 30,000 children-- a 25 percent increase in the overall size of the program in a single year.

Through this grant competition, EHS programs are encouraged to partner with center-based or home-based local child care providers, increasing EHS slots and providing stable child care for more children. In order to qualify for funding, child care providers must adopt the Early Head Start Program Performance Standards (EHSPPS). Centers must have low ratios of one adult to every four children, offer opportunities for parent engagement, provide health and developmental screenings, and EHS teachers must hold at least a Child Development Associate credential and participate in approved professional development. By partnering with EHS and adhering to the same standards, the administration expects that the quality of child care centers will improve. Programs that received EHS - Child Care partnership grants will also be required to offer full-day (which according to Head Start Performance Standards means at least six hours per day), year-round services, better accommodating the needs of working parents.

And early education advocates can breathe easy knowing that the EHS - Child Care partnership program will continue to be funded through the next fiscal year. The FY 2015 CR-omnibus spending bill, which passed the Senate over the weekend, maintains funding for the partnership program even among cuts to some of the President’s other initiatives. The Child Care and Development Block Grant, the other significant source of federal dollars for early care and education programs serving infants and toddlers, also received a bump in funding. While support for large social programs can sometimes be highly partisan, it appears that policymakers on both sides of the aisle are acknowledging the important role that access to high-quality, reliable early care and education programs can play in children’s development and in families’ well-being.

For more information on EHS-Child Care Partnerships view our colleague Clare McCann's post from earlier this year."