Throughout its 35-year history, Head Start has been the nation’s cornerstone of services for low-income children and their families. Its basic principles have been models for countless other programs designed to improve the circumstances and opportunities that vulnerable populations face. Today, Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide comprehensive child development services for children between birth and age 5, pregnant women, and their families. Head Start is child focused and has the overall goal of helping children from low-income families become ready to attend and succeed at school. Administered by the Head Start Bureau in the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), funds are provided through grants to local public agencies, private organizations, Indian tribes, and school systems. These organizations, in turn, operate Head Start programs. They provide services in the areas of education and early childhood development; medical, dental, and mental health; nutrition; and parent involvement. An underlying premise of Head Start services is that they should be appropriate for the child’s and family’s developmental, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage and experience.
Children are eligible to enroll in Head Start if their families meet certain income guidelines. In fiscal year 2000, Head Start served over 850,000 children in over 18,000 centers at a cost per child of approximately $6,000. In addition to direct program services, the Head Start Bureau sponsors training and technical assistance activities; supports research, demonstration, and evaluation projects; and monitors programs for compliance and quality. In fiscal year 2000, total Head Start program costs came to about $5.3 billion (U.S. Department of Education, 2001).