Thursday, Dec 22, 2016

Over 40 years after their inception, the Office of Head Start has just released the first holistic revision and complete reorganization of the Head Start Performance Standards.  According to the summary section of the Final Rule:
“This final rule modernizes the Head Start Program Performance Standards, last revised in1998.  In the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007, Congress instructed the Office of Head Start to update its performance standards and to ensure any such revisions to the standards do not eliminate or reduce quality, scope, or types of health, educational, parental involvement, nutritional, social, or other services programs provide. This rule responds to public comment, incorporates extensive findings from research and from consultation with experts, reflects best practices, lessons from program input and innovation, integrates recommendations from the Secretary’s Advisory Committee Final Report on Head Start Research and Evaluation, and reflects the Obama Administration’s deep commitment to improve the school readiness of young children. These performance standards will improve program quality, reduce burden on programs, and improve regulatory clarity and transparency. They provide a clear road map for current and prospective grantees to support high-quality Head Start services and to strengthen the outcomes of the children and families Head Start serves. ( See:https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/hs/docs/preamble-part1.pdf)

The most significant provisions to the performance standards include:

  1. Expanding Time for Learning and Healthy Development by increasing the minimum levels for program duration. 
    1. In Head Start this means moving away from a minimum number of 128 days of service to a minimum of 1020 hours of service per year which equates to approximately a 6 hour day for a course of 170 days per year.
    2. In EHS this means moving away from a minimum number of 46 weeks of service to a minimum of 1380 hours of service per year.
  2. Promoting Effective Teaching and Learning in Head Start Classrooms.   The new standards strengthen education services and curriculum requirements, require evidence-based professional development activities and the systematic use of valid and reliable assessment data to ensure individualized services to children and ongoing program improvement.
  3. Maintaining and strengthening Head Start’s Comprehensive Services and Family Engagement by strengthening mental health services to support teachers with classroom management, retaining the program’s core health services and parents’ critical decision-making role as leaders in program governance and operations, including maintaining the requirement for a parent committee at the program level.
  4. Ensuring the Health and Safety of Head Start Children by strengthening the staff standards of conduct and criminal background check processes and mandating safety training.
  5. Promoting Effective Management and Continuous Improvement of Head Start Programs through the use of program data in the development of program goals and objectives and in program analysis and evaluation.  These new standards aim to reduce bureaucratic burden by focusing on outcomes over process and plans.

Most of these new provisions are already in practice or partially in place at NACOG Head Start so the required changes in these areas will not be significant.  However, the provision related to expanding the time children spend in class will dramatically affect our program.  Presently, our Head Start Centers are operating at full capacity.  We offer 2 types of center-based service delivery:  ½ day programming and full day programming of 6 to 8 hours in duration.  In preschool we primarily operate half day programming of 3.5 hours per day Monday through Thursday for 140 days per year with AM and PM classes operating out of the same classroom space.  For children enrolled in this option that’s only 490 hours of service per year vs. the 1020 requirement in the new standards.  During the current year, 69% of our preschool children fall into this category.  An additional 5% are served in 6 hour per day programs for a total of 840 hours of duration.  Only 15% of the children enrolled in center-based preschool programming meet or exceed the 1020 hours of duration required by the new standards.  The remaining children enrolled in preschool receive their services through the home base option rather than attending classes at a center. 

In Early Head Start 100% of our center-based option involves a combination of classroom and home base service.  Infants and toddlers enrolled at NACOG EHS centers attend classes Monday through Friday for 170 days per year and then over the summer, families convert to home base for 8 weeks.   Under the new regulations we are hopeful that we will be able to extend our classroom services into the summer and eliminate the home base conversion.   We believe this change will benefit the majority of our families and enable us to better align our EHS classes with our public school partners while increasing staff training, planning and networking opportunities.
Fortunately, the timeline for implementing the new duration requirements are not immediate.  In Early Head Start the 1380 hour requirement is not effective until August 1, 2018 and the 1020 hours of service will not be required in Head Start until August 1, 2019.  Even so, making these shifts will require careful consideration and planning in order for us to come into compliance before the designated deadlines for each program. 
We have been moving toward offering more full day programming in preschool for the last several years because our families have told us this is the option they need and our enrollment numbers have reflected it.  This past June we had the opportunity to expand this effort when a funding announcement to extend the duration of services in both Head Start and EHS was released and we chose to respond.  In our grant application we applied to extend the year in 3 of our 6 hour preschool programs:  Ash Fork, Fredonia, and the Grand Canyon.  In Beaver Creek and Holbrook we have requested to extend the 3.5 hour day to a 6 hour day and to extend the school year and in Prescott Valley and Springerville we are proposing to lease &/or purchase additional facilities so we can open up full day Head Start programming in the communities.   All of these proposed changes will bring the effected classes up to the required level of 1020 hours of duration.

In all of our EHS center-based programming we have applied for funding to lengthen the time our classes are in operation so we can eliminate the summer conversion to home base as described above.  If our application is successful, the preschool and EHS staff working in these classes will be laid off for a shorter period of time each summer which will mean more money for them, just as the longer exposure to educational services will be of benefit to the children enrolled in these programs.  Although we’ve not yet been notified about our grant application, we remain optimistic and believe that we will be successful in getting the funding needed to make at least some of the proposed changes, if not all.