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Yvette Sanchez Fuentes Headshot

Head Start: Making a Good Thing Better

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It takes a lot more than the ABC's and a working knowledge of colors to get ready for kindergarten. As 1 million low-income children head to Head Start programs across the country this month -- we know that providing them and their families with a broad range of services will give them their best possible chance at success in school. That's why, in 49,000 classrooms across the country, Head Start teachers and staff are not only providing critical education services, but also dental, nutritional, mental health and other services to the children and their families.

The children who attend Head Start come from families and communities facing enormous economic and social challenges. Head Start serves the highest need populations, including children who are in the child welfare system, are homeless, are just learning English, and who have disabilities. Often, families who faced barriers to critically needed services in other settings get access to the services they need through Head Start.

While we know through extensive research that Head Start helps prepare our most vulnerable children for kindergarten, we also know that we can do better. We want to ensure that more children benefit from quality Head Start programs, and that those benefits continue through their school years. That is why the Office of Head Start has launched a reform agenda that is bold, innovative, and built on the best evidence available. This reform is designed to ensure that all Head Start children are ready for success in kindergarten and that all Head Start programs are high quality and well managed.

We have sent a strong message to Head Start programs and the entire early education community that the bar for quality has been raised. If a program is not delivering the high-quality educational experience our children deserve, and if there is a more capable, better qualified entity to run Head Start in a community, we owe it to our kids to shift funding to the more capable entity. While we are holding programs more accountable for higher quality services, we are also providing them with additional training and technical assistance through our National Centers.

Focusing on what happens in the classroom is key to improving children's experiences while they are in Head Start. But that is not enough. We are also working to improve the linkages between Head Start programs and the public schools children will enter when they start kindergarten. Strong linkages can accomplish several goals: they can assure that Head Start educational goals are matched up to what the schools think are important readiness goals; they can ease the transition for children by making sure that schools have good information and are prepared for the children coming from Head Start; and they can improve parent engagement at the critical point when the child is transitioning from Head Start to public school.

Head Start is the foundation of our nation's commitment to providing equal access to quality early learning programs. For children to reach their full potential -- and for our nation to reach its competitive potential -- we must provide the learning environments and services that children need in their first few vital years of development. Focusing on these children's success now is providing low-income families the opportunities they deserve and strengthening our country's workforce for decades to come.

Since 1965, Head Start has provided a critical lifeline for more than 28 million children and their families. Ed Ziegler, one of the founders of Head Start, always said that Head Start is not just a program -- it is an evolving concept.

Every day, the Office of Head Start continues to intensify our impacts, foster innovation, and ensure accountability so that every child in every Head Start program has the best opportunity to reach their full potential.

Head Start children need and deserve the most effective early education program possible. We are taking aggressive steps every day to meet our commitments to them.

Yvette Sanchez Fuentes is the national director of the Office of Head Start in the Administration for Children and Families division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.