Office of Head Start

Office of Head Start

Mission Statement

Head Start programs promote the school readiness of young children from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Program Description

Head Start and Early Head Start programs support the comprehensive development of children from birth to age 5, in centers, child care partner locations, and in their own homes, in a variety of ways.


  • Early Learning: Teachers facilitate individualized learning experiences to promote children’s readiness for school and beyond. Through planned and spontaneous instruction, relationships with adults, and play, children grow in language and literacy, understanding of early math and science concepts, and social and emotional development.
  • Health: Children receive health and development screenings, nutritious meals, and oral health and mental health support. Programs connect families with medical, dental, and mental health services, and ensure that children are receiving the services they need.
  • Family well-being: Parents and families are supported in achieving their own goals, such as housing stability, continued education, and financial security. Programs support and strengthen parent-child relationships and engage families around children’s learning and development.


Local Head Start services are delivered by about 1,700 public and private nonprofit and for-profit agencies. Head Start agencies design services for children and families that meet the needs of their local community and follow the Head Start Program Performance Standards. These agencies receive grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families (ACF), that are administered by the Office of Head Start (OHS). Some local communities and states contribute additional funding to expand Head Start and Early Head Start to include more children within their communities.

OHS provides oversight to the agencies that operate Head Start programs. OHS also provides federal policy direction and a training and technical assistance system to assist grantees in providing comprehensive services to eligible young children and their families.

Expected Goals

Head Start’s authorizing purpose is to promote the school readiness of young children. School readiness means children are prepared for school, families are supporting their children’s learning, and schools are ready as children transition into kindergarten.

Brief History of the Program

Head Start was founded as part of the War on Poverty under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Sargent Shriver led a panel of experts to develop a comprehensive child development program that would help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. The result was Project Head Start. Since then, Head Start has grown from an eight-week demonstration project in 1965 to include full-day and full-year services and numerous program options. Head Start has served over 37 million children and their families in urban and rural areas in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories.

Applicable Laws/Statutes

Head Start was last reauthorized under the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 with several provisions to strengthen Head Start quality. These include alignment of Head Start school readiness goals with state early learning standards, higher qualifications for the Head Start teaching workforce, State Advisory Councils on Early Care and Education in every state, and increased program monitoring, including a review of child outcomes and annual financial audits.

Children and Families Served in the 2019 Program Year

The overall Head Start programs enrolled 1,047,414 children in the 2019 program year. (Data was not collected for the 2020 program year.) This included:

  • 775,902 Head Start children aged 3 and over
  • 230,069 Early Head Start infants and toddlers and 15,642 pregnant women
  • 25,313 American Indian and Alaska Native children (included in Head Start and Early Head Start data)
  • 25,802 children through Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, a birth to 5 program

Programs provided services to children in every U.S. state and territory and in over 155 tribal communities, including 136,717 children eligible to receive early intervention or special education services, 35,778 children in foster care, and 54,809 families experiencing homelessness.