Federal Government Encourages Connections Between Head Start and Public Schools

Blog Post
July 18, 2018

After over a year with little mention of early care and education from the Trump administration, officials have recently been appointed to head up key offices in the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). While time will tell where these leaders’ priorities lie, there are a couple of reasons to feel encouraged.

ED’s Office of Early Learning, most recently headed up by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning Libby Doggett, has been without a director since Trump’s inauguration. Some (including me) speculated that the administration would remove this office, which was created under President Obama, altogether. But ED recently announced that Tammy Proctor will take over as acting director. She has been at ED for some time and has experience working in the Office of Early Learning. This office jointly oversees the original Preschool Development Grants program with HHS. And it will be partnering with HHS to administer the new Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five, which will be housed at HHS.

A few months ago, the HHS Administration for Children & Families announced that Dr. Deborah Bergeron would become the new director of the Office of Head Start. As a former public school teacher and principal with a background in K-12 education, she was not an obvious choice for this important role. Head Start served almost 900,000 children from low-income families in 2017 and had an almost $9 billion budget. And until now, Dr. Bergeron’s experience with Head Start was limited to having a Head Start program in her elementary school building. And she has admitted that as an administrator she was very disconnected from the Head Start program in her building.

That disconnect has caused her to draw some important conclusions about the need for better coordination and collaboration between early learning programs like Head Start and K-12 education. In her June 25th letter introducing herself to Head Start staff, she explained that she will be “focus[ing] on school readiness as it pertains to a child’s transition into kindergarten.”  

New America is one of several groups that has done a lot of research and writing on the need for a stronger birth through 3rd grade continuum. Research makes clear that high quality infant, toddler, and pre-K opportunities can prepare children for kindergarten and beyond, but these experiences are not a panacea. Children also need teachers and leaders in kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school who can support and build on their continued success.

Last year we released two reports that are particularly relevant to Dr. Bergeron’s focus. A Tale of Two Pre-K Leaders: How State Policies for Center Directors and Principals Leading Pre-K Programs Differ, and Why They Shouldn’t (and its companion data visualization tool), explores the current policies for early learning leaders, both center directors and principals, and recommends policy changes that better ensure both types of leaders are prepared to lead early childhood classrooms. Strengthening the relationships between these leaders, such as through joint professional learning opportunities, is key. And our report Connecting the Steps: State Strategies to Ease the Transition from Pre-K to Kindergarten looks specifically at how four states are encouraging smooth transitions to kindergarten.

Better connecting Head Start with local school districts is an important idea, but not a new one. The Head Start Performance Standards, which were updated just two years ago, require formal partnership between Head Start grantees and other early education providers to ensure smooth transitions to kindergarten. But the burden to collaborate cannot only be on the Head Start community; elementary school leaders must also play an active role. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which states have been working to implement for the last couple of years, took the important step of requiring local education agencies that receive federal Title I funding to develop agreements with their local Head Start providers to improve coordination.

But in a new video released this week, Dr. Bergeron announced that the Office of Head Start will soon be making a change to the program’s monitoring guidelines to reflect this focus on school readiness. In the video, she asks Head Start educators: “Do you really know what the expectations of the kindergarten classroom where your children are going to end up expect? That might be an academic expectation, a certain assessment they are going to be required to take. And if there is, do you know what it is? And if you know what it is, is it guiding and informing your own instruction in your classroom?” These are good questions for Head Start teachers and leaders to consider.  A question for Dr. Bergeron, though, is how addressing those questions will actually be included in monitoring standards?

And to reiterate, building a strong early learning continuum is not just the responsibility of the Head Start provider. Kindergarten teachers and principals need to be asking themselves similar questions. Do they know about the kinds of experiences incoming students have had?  And how are they aligning to build on their learning and meet children's needs across multiple domains?

Dr. Bergeron also explains in the video that the Office of Head Start already has plans to begin breaking down barriers by reaching out to ED. They have also invited Head Start directors and principals to meet at the end of July to figure out together what is working. This type of joint professional learning opportunity is essential to increasing collaboration between early learning program and K-12 education. (Check out this video New America recently produced on University of Washington’s  P-3 Executive Leadership Certificate Program which does just that). Lessons learned from this experience at the national level can help inform policy and practice on the ground. After all, these connections really need to be made at the local level between the Head Start educators and the teacher and leaders in the receiving elementary schools.

We’re looking forward to following Tammy Proctor and Dr. Bergeron’s work at ED and HHS and will continue to write on what we learn.

Related Topics
Pre-K Head Start