The children who attend Head Start deserve the best we can give them. A high-quality early education can be what provides a child from a low-income family a genuinely equal opportunity to succeed. That idea has guided Head Start since it began in 1965, and it laid the groundwork for the historic reforms currently underway.
Spurred by the 2007 Head Start Reauthorization Act, the Office of Head Start (OHS) is implementing a new rule that requires lower performing Head Start agencies to compete for continued funding. If Head Start providers fall short of quality benchmarks—including classroom quality, health and safety standards, and financial accountability and integrity –they will be required to compete.
The first programs that did not meet all of these benchmarks and that now must compete for future funding were notified of this requirement in December 2011. Soon after, in communities nationwide, more than 200 competitive announcements were posted for federal funds to provide Early Head Start and Head Start services.
In February 2012, OHS engaged in a large-scale outreach campaign to recruit highly qualified panelists to review these applications. We sought out reviewers who had expertise and experience in early childhood education and family support services, and those with fiscal and organizational skills. We also looked for people with strong communication and critical thinking skills so that they could provide thoughtful and objective evaluations based on established criteria. We sought diversity and prohibited anyone with a financial or other interest in an applicant from reviewing that organization’s application.
More than 1,300 individuals applied to be reviewers. All applicants were screened through a three-tier vetting process including an in-depth review of their application and resume, writing sample, reference check, and finally the applicant’s successful completion of federally conducted OHS Grant Reviewer Training. In the end, about 250 qualified non-federal reviewers were selected to serve on review panels.
The more than 500 applications received are now under competitive review by these panels. In order to maintain continuity of services to children and families and to support staff, OHS extended funding for all competing grantees to June 30, 2013. This extension provides current grantees in competition with funding to provide comprehensive Head Start services to children and families through the end of the school year. It also allows for the smooth transition of Head Start services, where applicable, and for minimal disruptions of indirect services.
In the New Year, OHS will begin to reach out to applicants who pass both phases of the review process. At that time, we will engage in negotiations to make final determinations about awards in each of the competitive service areas. In the spring of 2013, when the negotiation process is complete, OHS will release the names of the awarded applicants, an abstract of their application and the summary of panel comments for their awarded application. OHS will then begin working with successful applicants on transition activities to ensure they are prepared to begin operations when their five-year Head Start and Early Head Start grants are awarded on July 1, 2013.
Because Head Start grant competitions are unique among other federal grant competitions, OHS established an interactive applicant support website. This site offers a robust collection of resources to provide a deeper understanding of the Head Start and Early Head Start programs, the funding process, and the evaluation criteria. In addition, you can find the list of Head Start grantees designated to compete, the link to forecasted grant opportunities, and up-to-the-minute Administration for Children and Families policy decisions impacting competition.
Based on my experience working in a local Head Start program, I know how it feels to have many regulations coming from Washington, DC. I also know that change is hard. I understand that many Head Start providers are getting calls from parents and community partners asking what this “Designation Renewal System” regulation means.
This is why OHS is posting this blog, so that you can hear the information directly from us.
This Administration believes that fair, open, and equitable competition is a good thing. It gives all of us the opportunity to look at our programs, evaluate how we provide services, and continuously improve. We have a duty to ensure that the children and families we enroll in Head Start receive the highest quality services available in this country.
Head Start children and families need the best services we have to offer, and 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.