Free. Effective. And Underenrolled.

Why is Head Start, the federal government’s ambitious program for young kids, struggling to fill all of its seats?

Four-year-old kids playing and learning in a Head Start class at Hernandez Center, Detroit.
Kids play and learn in a Head Start class at the Hernandez Center in Detroit.

Francesca Berardi

This story was reported by the Teacher Project, an education journalism fellowship at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to covering the issues facing public school families and teachers.

When Monica Hernandez moved to southwest Detroit last spring from California, she headed to her local Head Start center to enroll her two young children, who are 1 and 4. Hernandez, 21, wanted child care so she would have time to go back to school and earn her GED. She also hoped that with Head Start—the half-century-old federal program that provides low-income prekindergartners with free education, health, and nutrition services—she would help prepare her children academically and socially for kindergarten.

At the Head Start center at Harms Elementary School, Hernandez made an appointment to discuss enrolling her kids, but the meeting never happened. “They just kept postponing it, and then they never called me back,” she said. “I just gave up.”

At a time when cities and states across the country are trying to expand publicly funded preschool programs, the stories of Detroit families like Hernandez’s show how simply adding publicly funded seats for the littlest learners isn’t enough—particularly when it comes to low-income families who often have the most to benefit from quality early childhood education programs.

Of the roughly 30,000 low-income children below the age of 5 in Detroit, only about 3,900 are enrolled in a Head Start program. Funding for about 850 Head Start slots goes unused. (Head Start is federally funded but delivered by hundreds of local agencies that can be public, private, for-profit, or nonprofit. Initially, it served low-income 3- to 5-year-olds but expanded in the 1990s to serve younger children as well.) Some parents don’t know of the program’s existence; others struggle to navigate a complicated landscape of Head Start providers with impenetrable enrollment procedures. The experience in Detroit shows that serving more of the country’s youngest students depends not only on expanding access but on getting much better information to the most disconnected communities and parents. Although the demand for Head Start varies depending on the community, connecting the most needy families with the highest quality and best-funded providers is an issue across the country.

“The struggle to fill vacant seats [in Detroit] is something you could not even imagine in other cities … where the waiting lists are interminable,” said Maria Montoya, who works for Excellent Schools Detroit, an organization devoted to helping families traverse Detroit’s education landscape.

Though Hernandez eventually found a spot for her children in another Head Start center run by an agency called Matrix, her initial problem—wanting Head Start seats and struggling to get them—is frustrating to many of the professionals working in the sector. Laura Lefever, who runs the Children’s Center, a Head Start program in northwest Detroit, has more seats available than pupils to fill them. “Where are the children?” she asked, staring at a chart showing the number of vacant seats in the center she oversees.

Lefever’s program is in a neighborhood with a large number of single working parents in desperate need of child care. Yet 10 of the seats at the Children’s Center haven’t been filled. “I am becoming a walking billboard,” Lefever said, pointing to her red T-shirt with the name of the school on it. “I carry fliers everywhere.”

The reasons for the Head Start vacancies are numerous, intertwined, and contain valuable lessons for a nation hoping to better serve its youngest students.

Many parents, particularly those who were underserved by the education system themselves, don’t understand the value of early childhood programs—or remain unaware of their existence. This can be especially true in states where even 5-year-old kindergarten is optional. “They don’t realize the impact early education can have, and the importance of learning how to support your children’s studies in the years to come,” said Lefever. “Head Start is not a parking space for babies but the beginning of a journey. It is for parents just as much as for children.”

While the research and policy world remains divided on the quality of Head Start, studies have shown that it can have a positive significant impact over the long term. Children who participate are more likely to earn a high school diploma and less likely to be convicted of a crime. While traditional Head Start programs serve kids once they turn 3, Early Head Start enrolls younger children. In Detroit, some Head Start centers also offer Early Head Start, but parents tend to be even less aware of the programs for younger children.

Sheritta Dew might never have discovered Head Start if she hadn’t gone back to school herself. “When I had my first child I did not know about these programs,” said Dew, 21, who has a 3- and a 1-year-old, and is six months pregnant with a third child. But when someone at her GED center mentioned Head Start, Dew realized she had more options than keeping her children at home. They’re now enrolled at a Head Start center in southwestern Detroit, not far from the homeless shelter where the family lives.

Dew’s 3-year-old spent his first two years at home, where he didn’t have nearly as much exposure to educational activities. “I just regret that my son wasn’t here sooner, he could have learned a lot more,” she said. But following hard times, Dew now feels that her life is on an upswing. Staying at the shelter means she doesn’t need to worry about where her family will find its next meal, and social workers are helping her to find an apartment. Most important, her children seem content and engaged. “They look happier since they started,” she said.

In Detroit, nearly 60 percent of children from birth to age 18 live with a single mother. According to the U.S. census, the median annual income of an adult female in the city is $15,258, below the federal poverty line for a family of two.

“There are not enough fathers involved with the kids,” said Glen Williams, 41. His 4-year-old is enrolled at a center run by Matrix, the city’s largest Head Start operator, where Williams has volunteered. One of the main goals of that center is to engage more with fathers and promote fatherhood.

Williams and his wife heard about Head Start from neighbors, who in turn heard about it through a door-to-door advertising campaign. “Most parents are afraid to leave their kids to people they don’t know,” Williams said. Indeed, while some parents remain unaware of the importance of early childhood education, others have a longstanding distrust of government institutions. Some are reluctant to answer detailed questions about their finances and background, much less hand over their children to the care of strangers.

Parents who have gone through financial troubles or who came to the country illegally often don’t feel comfortable providing certain details during the enrollment process. Lefever meets them face to face to earn their trust and does her best to make sure they understand she is not conducting an investigation, just trying to help. “We try to help parents let their guard down,” she said, “but it’s not always that easy.”

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While parental reluctance and lack of awareness play a role in keeping Detroit’s Head Start centers underoccupied, a blurry enrollment process doesn’t help the matter.

The city administered the Head Start program for about half a century, from the 1960s to 2012. At that point, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it no longer wanted the city to distribute the money because of longstanding issues, including mismanagement of funds. In 2014, control over the program was handed over to a variety of local organizations and nonprofits that now run the centers, a more typical model from a national perspective.

There are a number of different factors that determine Head Start eligibility, which can vary slightly from center to center, with some exemptions permitted. A child’s family income typically needs to be at or below the federal poverty guidelines of $16,000 for a family of two and roughly $20,000 for a family of three. Other factors that must be taken into consideration are homelessness, disability, and the English language proficiency of the family. But some factors, like the age or the employment status of the parents, depend on local needs and context. In a neighborhood with a rapidly growing number of refugee youngsters, for instance, they might receive greater preference than they would in other areas.

Skeptics say this system not only confuses parents but allows for a fuzziness that less-than-scrupulous operators can exploit: turning away families they should serve by saying that they don’t meet the enrollment criteria. Some center operators are far less responsive and helpful than Lefever.

The complicated, and not always transparent, enrollment process can be particularly detrimental for the most vulnerable kids: those with special needs. Each Head Start center is supposed to set aside at least 10 percent of its seats for children with special needs, but according to parents and center operators, some make it clear that they are not able to accept students with more severe disabilities.

Tina Edwards, the enrollment coordinator at the Children’s Center, recalls a 3-year-old who had been in a car accident and couldn’t walk as a result. “Another school told her parents that they could not accommodate their need based on her handicap,” Edwards said. “We welcomed her here. One bad encounter can affect how families feel about the Head Start program as a whole.”

In order to win parents’ trust, engaging with them is a priority. “One of the ways to address the enrollment issue is to empower parents, involve them in the process, and ask them to spread the word about the program,” said Kaitlin Ferrick, director of the Michigan Head Start State Collaboration Office. This is particularly true in Detroit, where many residents don’t trust government services. That is why one of Head Start’s most important conduits to parents is already-satisfied parents.

* * *

In a city where a population of roughly 700,000 is spread out over 140 square miles, geography and transportation form another barrier to access. Until recently children had to be enrolled in a center located in the ZIP code where they lived, which was not always the closest one to their home. They usually couldn’t switch ZIP codes unless all of the programs in their own area were full—something that happens very seldom in Detroit. However, new standards implemented last month create more flexibility. While Detroit Head Start operators are still waiting to see if the new standards will help solve their problems, they do allow centers to more frequently enroll children in the ZIP code where their parents work, not live—if center operators can show they’ve made every effort possible to recruit families who reside in their ZIP code.

Parents often prefer this option, especially those who don’t find a spot in a full-day program. Some travel more than an hour on buses with unreliable schedules to get to their jobs. “You really need to be unemployed, or have someone who helps you, in order to enroll your child for three hours a day” in a half-day program, said Melanie Ford, a 34-year-old mother of two.

After a “challenging” nine months spent trying to enroll her daughter in a quality and convenient Head Start center, she finally settled on one she disliked because it was the only one with an open full-day slot. (Full-day programs typically run from 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m.) “There were not many activities, children were not learning as they should,” she said, noting that staff members did not interact directly with the kids as much as she wanted. She was eventually able to move her daughter to another center in the same ZIP code where she learns a lot more. “She is always smiling now. But I tell you: You gotta be really consistent to enroll your kid in school.”

Even those working families who find “full-day” programs may struggle with the limited hours—another deterrent to enrollment. Some may eschew Head Start and opt for private, home-based child care centers as a result.

“Some parents just don’t show up until 5,” said Nolana Nobles, assistant director of the Matrix centers, where the day often ends at 3 p.m. “Children become anxious, and I can’t ask the staff to stay overtime. They have their own kids.” The agency enrolls roughly 1,500 children even though it could provide seats for 1,900.

Nobles has been working in Head Start programs since 1999 and has firsthand experience of how valuable early childhood education can be, having attended a Head Start center herself. She loves her job, yet sometimes she has to confront hard challenges.

In an extreme case, a parent didn’t show up until 7 p.m., and none of the people on the information card were available to pick the child up. Nobles felt she had no other choice than to call Children’s Protective Services. The father nearly physically assaulted her. “He was hours late. I did not have a choice. It was horrible,” she said.

According to a 2015 report funded by the Kresge Foundation, Detroit has 6,684 full-day, full-year licensed slots in schools and centers for children ages 3 to 5—a number that meets only 29 percent of the demand. Roughly 16 percent of available child care in the city is family child care homes, most of it unlicensed. This type of private child care has played a historic role in Detroit communities where families have learned not to rely too heavily on government-run services. But it is not subject to any kind of inspection, even if partially subsidized through publicly funded vouchers.

“The collection of data on early childhood education in Detroit is still challenging, the Head Start program included,” said Kaitlin Ferrick. This can be true in many big cities, but Detroit, according to Ferrick, offers “an extreme example.” Competition among providers doesn’t make the data gathering any easier, with agencies sometimes competing for the same teachers, social workers, and facilities.

There is some cause for hope. Ten foundations in the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, which formed in 2010, have invested more than $50 million into the region’s early childhood programs since 2012. The fund has helped spur innovative, collaborative ways to help Detroit’s Head Start program expand its capacity and its reach, building a citywide enrollment system.

But if Detroit’s most vulnerable families miss the message, the new money will have far less impact. The city’s experience shows that the future of early childhood education in America’s low-income communities depends heavily on whether parents have the capacity and knowledge to take advantage of their available options—and, when necessary, clamor for something better.