Three Ways Head Start Programs Can Use Federal Relief Funds to Support Parents’ Economic Mobility

By Meghan McCormick, Teresa Eckrich Sommer, Terri Sabol, JoAnn Hsueh

This commentary originally appeared in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

Recent federal legislation collectively provides over a billion dollars in new funding for Head Start, offering an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen the program’s antipoverty programming. Since its founding in the 1960s, Head Start—including Early Head Start—has had a dual mission (perhaps not well-known to the general public) to advance the education and wellbeing of children and parents.

There is already rigorous evidence that Head Start improves the educational outcomes of young children. Now is the time to expand and strengthen services to support parents’ own economic mobility goals—through education and career services—with equal intensity and attention to quality. Here’s how to begin strengthening this system:

Give Specialized Staff Training to Support Families’ Economic Mobility

Head Start staff should be able to help parents set and work on goals that directly link with their economic mobility. But the vast majority of Head Start teachers, home visitors, and family support staff have backgrounds in early childhood education and children’s early learning and development. In one study of Early Head Start, when we worked closely with programs to add tools and supports for parents, we found that many staff expressed discomfort and had less experience setting and directly supporting parents’ education or career advancement goals. While many staff believed that it was crucial to help families move out of poverty, we found that most parents set goals related to their child’s development, rather than focusing on their own education or career advancement.

Programs can provide specialized training to bolster front-line staff to help parents achieve their own educational and career goals. For example, Head Start programs in Tulsa took on CareerAdvance, a workforce development and training program intended to prepare parents for careers in healthcare. All Head Start management and front-line staff received training on the approach, helping to ensure that parents received consistent messaging and information about CareerAdvance’s requirements, principles, and practices as they moved through the program. Recent findings about CareerAdvance showed that these efforts did have benefits for both parents and children, increasing rates of parental employment and improving children’s attendance in Head Start programming.

Provide Intensive Education and Career Services for Parents

Head Start programs should increase the intensity of education and career services for parents in line with the high-quality early childhood programming that children already receive. Results from recent studies of postsecondary education and workforce development programs point to the value of sustained, intensive supports to help individuals meet their goals. For example, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) model implemented in community colleges provides frequent, personalized advisement, career development, and tutoring to students over two years. The model has led to big improvements in students’ graduation rates across different settings. In addition, EmPATH’s Mobility Mentoring coaching process and the Bridge to Self-Sufficiency model offer intensive, executive skills-based coaching for adults focused on goal setting, decision-making, and persistence in achieving economic mobility. There is some early research from Boston to suggest that this type of coaching can support adults to complete degree programs and find better-paying jobs.

Grafting more intensive education and career services for parents onto Head Start’s existing early care and education and home visiting services will be challenging. However, the increase in federal resources provide an unprecedented opportunity to align the quality and intensity of Head Start’s supports for children and parents, which will be especially important as parents re-engage in the post-pandemic labor market.

Improve Coordination and Collaboration with Local Service Providers

The vast majority of Head Start programs do work with local employment, adult education, and job training programs to support parents’ economic mobility through referrals. However, these partnerships can vary in how coordinated and collaborative they are, which can make it difficult to achieve shared goals. When referring parents to external workforce development supports, for example, Head Start programs may face key barriers if partner organizations only offer services during the evening or weekends, when child care is often harder for parents to come by.

Head Start programs should build upon direct collaborations with referral partners and streamline service delivery. In our work, we have found that aligning intake, eligibility, and screening processes across different types of agencies can help families directly access the supports they need. For example, Head Start programs could develop common intake forms and eligibility verification requirements with partner agencies, so that parents do not need to go through the steps of reverifying eligibility each time they access new services. Many large agencies—like the Educational Alliance and University Settlement in New York City—provide Head Start programming for children in addition to education and employment services for adults. Organizations like these may be ideal locations to test these types of coordination strategies.

Partnerships could even go a step further and create shared data systems to streamline communication about families and help front-line staff collaborate more effectively. Shared data systems can allow Head Start staff to learn in real-time when families take up referrals and engage in other agency supports. If staff find that families are not able to access services, they can then use that information to investigate and act on potential obstacles and challenges.

For over 50 years, Head Start has built a strong foundation of two-generation programming for families experiencing poverty. While on-going research is underway to better understand the current landscape of Head Start’s family support services, the pandemic relief money provides unique opportunities to not only invest in high-quality early care and education for children but also to strengthen economic mobility supports for parents. In doing so, Head Start will be better set up to achieve its overall goal of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Meghan McCormick is a Research Associate and JoAnn Hsueh is the Director of the Family Well-Being and Children’s Development Policy Area at MDRC. Teresa Eckrich Sommer is a Research Professor at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, and Terri Sabol is an Assistant Professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.