Head Start promotes the school readiness of young children from low-income families through agencies in their local community. The Head Start program is authorized by the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 [PDF, 271KB].
Head Start and Early Head Start programs support the mental, social, and emotional development of children from birth to age 5. In addition to education services, programs provide children and their families with health, nutrition, social, and other services. Head Start services are responsive to each child and family's ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage.
Head Start encourages the role of parents as their child's first and most important teachers. Programs build relationships with families that support positive parent-child relationships, family well-being, and connections to peers and community. Head Start began as a program for preschoolers. Three- and 4-year-olds made up over 80 percent of the children served by Head Start last year.
Early Head Start serves pregnant women, infants, and toddlers. Early Head Start programs are available to the family until the child turns 3 years old and is ready to transition into Head Start or another pre-K program. Early Head Start helps families care for their infants and toddlers through early, continuous, intensive, and comprehensive services.
Local services are delivered by about 1,700 public and private nonprofit and for-profit agencies. These agencies receive grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Head Start agencies design services for children and families that meet the needs of their local community and the Head Start Program Performance Standards. Some cities, states, and federal programs offer funding to expand Head Start and Early Head Start to include more children within their communities.
Both Head Start and Early Head Start programs offer a variety of service models, depending on the needs of the local community. Programs may be based in centers, schools, or family child care homes. Early Head Start services are provided for at least six hours per day, whereas Head Start preschool services may be half-day (four hours) or full-day. Another program option is home-based services, in which a staff person visits children once a week in their own home and works with the parent as the child's primary teacher. Children and families who receive home-based services meet twice monthly with other enrolled families for a group learning experience facilitated by Head Start staff.
What Is School Readiness?
The Office of Head Start (OHS) defines school readiness as children being ready for school, families ready to support their children's learning, and schools ready for the children who enter their doors.
Children's school readiness is measured by the skills set out in the five domains of the Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework:
- Language and Literacy
- Cognition and General Knowledge
- Approaches to Learning
- Physical Development and Health
- Social and Emotional Development
Families are engaged in their children's learning and development and are poised to support the lifelong success of their child. Head Start recognizes that parents are their children's primary teachers and advocates.
As Head Start programs, parents, and schools work together to promote school readiness and engage families as their children make the transition to kindergarten, schools become ready for children. Learn more about school readiness.
What Are Comprehensive Services?
Head Start comprehensive services include:
- Screenings and follow-up for health, development, and behavior
- Health and safety
- Social and emotional health
- Family goal-setting
- Social services
- Transition services
- Services for children with disabilities
Comprehensive services are delivered in a learning environment that is individualized to support children's growth in the five essential domains. A minimum of 10 percent of a program's total enrollment must be children with disabilities. Additionally, Head Start services are designed to be responsive to each child and family's ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage.
How Many Children and Families Were Served in FY2013?
Over a million children are served by Head Start programs every year, including children in every U.S. state and territory and in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities.
In fiscal year (FY) 2013:
- Head Start programs served 932,164 children and their families
- Early Head Start programs served 150,100 children and 6,391 pregnant women and their families
- Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS), which serves children from birth to age 5, served an additional 31,907 children
- AIAN programs served 21,055 Head Start children, 4,240 Early Head Start children, and 482 pregnant women and their families
FY2013 includes services delivered Fall 2012 through Summer 2013.
Since 2004, OHS has produced Head Start fact sheets that summarize the funding given to agencies and services provided to children over the year. Read the Head Start fact sheets for more information.
What Head Start Research Is Conducted by HHS?
HHS commissions research to better understand the different variations in programs and to guide program improvement in both Head Start and Early Head Start. For example, Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) and Baby FACES provide a picture of children's development and academic readiness over their time in Head Start and Early Head Start. HHS also commissions shorter term studies such as the Head Start CARES project, which compared different curricula directed at social and emotional development. Read more about the research.
What Is the History of Head Start?
Head Start programs began in the summer of 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Early Head Start was added in 1994. Head Start has served more than 30 million children since 1965, growing from an eight-week demonstration project to include full-day/full-year services and many program options. Read more about the history of Head Start.
About the Office of Head Start
Head Start and Early Head Start are administered by the Office of Head Start (OHS), within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Ann Linehan is the acting director of OHS. She has held senior management positions with OHS for 15 years and has served as the deputy director since 2011.
Ann began her career as a special needs teacher for medically fragile children. She served nearly a decade as the executive director of a Massachusetts nonprofit agency that provided Head Start and child care services in eight communities. She holds undergraduate degrees in sociology and psychology and a master's in education from Boston State.
OHS administers grant funding and oversight to the agencies that provide Head Start services. They also provide federal policy direction and a training and technical assistance (T/TA) system to assist grantees in providing comprehensive services to eligible young children and their families.
Head Start was appropriated $7,573,095,000 for FY2013. $7,278,195,000 was awarded directly to public agencies, private nonprofit and for-profit organizations, tribal governments, and school systems to operate Head Start programs in local communities. $189,330,000 was directed to T/TA to improve the quality of services provided by grantees. Half that amount was awarded directly to grantees to be used for local T/TA, and the other half funded the national system. More details around OHS funding can be found in the FY2013 Fact Sheet.
OHS has 12 Regional Offices that support the administration of grants, oversight, and T/TA. These offices are located in Boston, MA; New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Kansas City, MO; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; San Francisco, CA; and Seattle, WA. The Regional Offices for American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) programs are located in Washington,
The priorities of OHS are to:
- Ensure that all programs have school readiness goals around the five essential domains for all children birth to 5 in all program options.
- Use child assessment and self-assessment data to track progress on the goals overtime.
- Continue to implement a Designation Renewal System and a five year grant process that strengthens and supports comprehensive services, program management, governance, and fiscal operations.
- Support all programs in meeting health and safety Program Performance Standards.
- Implement a quality, responsive T/TA system.
- Strengthen the early childhood workforce birth to 5.
- Support implementation of the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) Framework and effective family engagement in programs and communities.
- Support partnerships between Head Start and Early Head Start, child care, early care and education systems, schools, and communities to improve continuity for children and families across learning, health, and other community settings.
- Promote high-quality teaching practices, including effective teacher-child interactions.
In January of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared The War on Poverty in his State of the Union speech. Shortly thereafter, Sargent Shriver took the lead in assembling a panel of experts to develop a comprehensive child development program that would help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. Among these experts were Dr. Robert Cooke, a pediatrician at John Hopkins University, and Dr. Edward Zigler, a professor of psychology and director of the Child Study Center at Yale University.
Part of the government's thinking on poverty was influenced by new research on the effects of poverty, as well as on the impacts of education. This research indicated an obligation to help disadvantaged groups, compensating for inequality in social or economic conditions. Head Start was designed to help break the cycle of poverty, providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs. A key tenet of the program established that it be culturally responsive to the communities served, and that the communities have an investment in its success through the contribution of volunteer hours and other donations as nonfederal share.
In the summers of 1965 and 1966, the Office of Economic Opportunity launched an eight-week Project Head Start. In 1969, under the Nixon administration, Head Start was transferred from the Office of Economic Opportunity to the Office of Child Development in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Dr. Edward Zigler, who had served on the planning committee to launch Project Head Start, was appointed Director of the Office of Child Development. In 1977, under the Carter administration, Head Start began bilingual and bicultural programs in about 21 states. Seven years later, in October 1984 under the Reagan administration, Head Start's grant budget exceeded $1 billion. In September of 1995, under the Clinton administration, the first Early Head Start grants were given and in October of 1998, Head Start was reauthorized to expand to full-day and full-year services.
Head Start was most recently reauthorized again in 2007, under the George W. Bush administration, 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. The Head Start training and technical assistance system was redesigned to support programs through six National Centers and a state-based system to ensure success.
The statute also included a provision that regulations be promulgated to move programs from an indefinite project period to a five-year grant cycle. Programs would be required to demonstrate they are of high quality or a competitive grant opportunity would be made available within the community. In 2009, under the Obama administration, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act added more than 64,000 slots for Early Head Start and Head Start programs.
Head Start has served more than 30 million children since 1965, growing from an eight-week demonstration project to include full day/year services and many program options. Currently, Head Start is administered by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start serves over a million children and their families each year in urban and rural areas in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories, including American Indian, Alaskan Native and Migrant/Seasonal communities.
Head Start 40th Anniversary, November 2005
000119-Head Start 40th Anniversary Nov 30 2005 part 1 English-2005
Read the transcript [PDF, 45KB] | Download the video [MP4, 157MB]
Head Start Educating Kids, Empowering Families, Changing Communities
000124-Head Start Educating Kids Empowering Families Changing Communities-2010
Read the transcript [PDF, 24KB] | Download the video [MP4, 54MB]
History of Head Start. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2011. English.
Head Start Stories
Since 1965, Head Start has served millions of children and families by promoting school readiness, by providing comprehensive services, and by emphasizing the role of parents as their child's first and most important teacher. These are the stories of how Head Start has impacted the lives of the children, parents, neighbors, and staff that have been involved in its programs.
"Just think, nearly 50 years later, the program remains true to its mission with tens of millions of children getting a real Head Start in their young lives!" Greg Cantori, president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, Chicago, IL
Today, I write as the president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, one of the largest state associations of nonprofits in our nation.
Of the many certificates, awards, and diplomas on my office wall, I'm most proud of my 1965 Head Start certificate of completion. I now know that I was among the lucky ones who was recruited and attended one of the very first Head Start classes in 1965.
Our eight-week class took place where the Human Services Department now stands on 63rd and Drexel Ave., in Chicago, IL. How do I know that? Well, my wonderful mom remembers it so well, that she even has the address memorized some 50 years later! She told me how the staff went door-to-door looking for the first Head Start kids to participate.
It boggles my mind how organized and challenging that must have been to get a new program like this off the ground, on a such a national scale, with only months of planning and with no internet, emails, or computers. I honestly don’t remember much of my experience as a 5 year old, other than the large pipes in the basement ceiling and the warmth and care we all received.
So, why am I so proud of my certificate?
It represents all that is just and good in putting children and families absolutely first and foremost. It represents the incredible cooperation, partnerships, and dedication between elected officials, public servants, teachers, parents, and staff. It represents a key moment where Lyndon B. Johnson said: "Here and now, we declare unconditional war on poverty in America." It represents and celebrates the wonderful diversity of the classmates I spent eight weeks with. And it represents the sense of gratitude and success of its holder. Just think, nearly 50 years later, the program remains true to its mission with tens of millions of children getting a real Head Start in their young lives! This is what our younger generation says needs a "shout out"—that is, Head Start is Awesome!
"Many can attest to the amount of impact that this agency has had in their lives and my family is one of those thousands and thousands of families out there." Irma Morin, Executive Director of the Community Council of Idaho, Inc., Caldwell, ID
If someone were to ask me at the age of five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wouldn't imagine myself saying that I would be the executive director for Idaho's largest nonprofit serving Latinos. The path that I took for a career revolved around the wonderful experiences I had with, what was formerly known as, the Idaho Migrant Council, and now Community Council of Idaho, Inc. Many can attest to the amount of impact that this agency has had in their lives and my family is one of those thousands and thousands of families out there. As a child, I was enrolled at "De Colores Head Start Center" which at the time was located at Lakeview Park in Nampa, ID. At the time, my family didn't know that our roots with this agency would not end at a Head Start Center.
As a migrant family, my family and I continued our journey to Lodi, CA alongside other farmworkers. I myself began working in the fields at the age of 11. Throughout my childhood, what I defined as the hardest jobs in the world was that of farmworkers. As a migrant farmworker child and as one of many across the United States, I dealt with the challenges of consistency in my education. It wasn't until my family decided to make Idaho their home that I was able to begin to build a connection with a community. I had the opportunity to expand the world I had known. With the support of my parents, I challenged myself in every way I could. The vision of my parents seeing me walk down the aisle with a college graduation cap and diploma was the ultimate gift I could give my parents for all that they had done for me.
My journey in achieving this goal was not easy but, through the assistance of Community Council of Idaho, Inc., I was able to pay for tuition and textbooks throughout my undergraduate career. In 1992, I was able to walk down the aisle when I received my Bachelor of Science in accounting from Boise State University. Following my graduation, I knew what I wanted to do: Give back to the agency that had done so much for me. I did exactly that when I applied for a position at the Community Council of Idaho, Inc.
When I speak to my parents of the major impact that Community Council of Idaho, Inc. programs have in the state of Idaho all that can be seen is a big smile. They are not smiling because of the title I hold with this agency but, instead, they are so proud of the little girl who grew up to dedicate her life to expanding the services that farmworkers and low-income populations once never had or dreamed of having.
I couldn't have made it this far without the ongoing support of my beloved husband of 19 years and my three loving children.
My commitment to this agency has not changed as I continue to find ways to better serve the needs of Idaho's Latinos and low-income populations.
"I was able to see the results and believe the Head Start program makes a REAL difference." Keisha Warner, Head Start graduate and teacher, Washington, DC
In the early 1970's, I was enrolled in Head Start at the Katie C. Lewis Elementary School in Washington, DC where my mom taught kindergarten. Of course, I don't remember being in Head Start but I have pictures of field trips taken with my Head Start classmates ... fast forward to 1995.
I had reached a point in my life and career where I wanted to "make a difference." I applied to teach Head Start in the District of Columbia Public Schools. While teaching Head Start full time, I earned a Master's Degree in Elementary Education from Trinity College. During that time, I enrolled my daughter, Kaila, in Head Start at Noyes Elementary also located in Washington, DC— and my mom, a kindergarten teacher joined the Head Start family as a Head Start teacher at Clarke Elementary School. After 35 years of teaching, she retired from the District of Columbia Public Schools in 1999.
Kaila just completed her 10th grade year at Phelps ACE on Honor Roll. She received an Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) Scholarship which allowed her to participate in the 2013 Summer Science and Engineering Program at Smith College located in Northampton, MA for five weeks. Kaila plans to join ROTC in college. She would like to become an officer in the United States Military. Two generations of Head Start teachers and two generations of Head Start students!
Last year was my first year in 16 years not teaching Head Start. I taught Pre-Kindergarten. Some people would ask "What's the big deal?" The 'big deal' (and the big difference) is Head Start's holistic approach and the positive impact it made in the lives of children and families. I was able to see the results and believe the Head Start program makes a REAL difference!
"My love for Head Start has opened so many doors." Evelyn Gold Leger, Head Start graduate and teacher, Las Vegas, NM
I have been a resident of Las Vegas, NM all my life. I attended West Las Vegas Head Start as a child and I graduated May 26, 1974 and have many fond memories of Head Start.
My Head Start teacher's name was Rosie Armijo and she is also native of Las Vegas, NM. I had the privilege of visiting with Rosie last spring and we reminisced about how Head Start has been so powerful in school readiness. I explained to Rosie that all she taught me was very valued in my life.
I remember Rosie playing her accordion and that would start my day with much joy and happiness. I remember learning numbers and the alphabet, writing my name, and story time was always my favorite part of the day. I also have a very fond memory of going on a field trip to the Albuquerque Zoo. I remember wearing overalls and a very pretty orange shirt. After the field trip, I got off the school bus so tired and still remember how Rosie talked about all the animals and all we saw at the zoo.
Rosie was very loving and caring. I thanked her for playing such a positive part in my life. I always knew in my heart that someday I would want to be a Head Start teacher. I had such a love for it. I wanted to be the best teacher and supporter to my children and families.
Today, Head Start is a great tool in preparing our children for school readiness.
I have educated and supported many families. Head Start is the best program that supports children and families when it comes to school readiness. My love for Head Start has opened so many doors. I take pride in working with children and families.
"I know that the most important gift I can give to my children is my time." Jorge Avendano, Father of the Year at Davis/Morgan/Summit Head Start-Early Head Start, Kaysville, UT
Being the best father I can be is very important to me. Even after a long day of work, I make sure to spend one-on-one time with both of my children. When I work at night, I make sure to call at bedtime to wish my daughter Amariah, sweet dreams and sing to her one of my favorite songs from my childhood. One of my favorite things to do with my kids is to cuddle and read stories. I know that the most important gift I can give to my children is my time.
My father left us when I was 3. So, when I was growing up, I believed it was the father's job to provide for the family. It wasn't until I attended the Head Start fatherhood class that I realized that there was so much more to being a good dad. I saw that we needed to spend more time together and reprioritize my life. Because of that class, I got more interested in the day-to-day activities of my daughter and became more involved with her. I make it a priority now to take the day off from work to be with her in class and attend activities.
"Head Start empowered me to be a leader." Kimberly P. Johnson, Head Start graduate and Children's Book Author, Shelby, NC
"Head Start taught me so much about parenting, early childhood development, and most important, about myself and my abilities." Bonificia R. Riedel, former Head Start parent and current Head Start administrator, Cheyenne, WY
A blue toothbrush, a comb and a balloon. I still remember my Head Start teacher giving me those wonderful gifts more than 40 years ago. They meant so much to a child who had so little.
My father was an alcoholic and our family often struggled for the bare necessities, such as food and electricity. My mom had little time or energy to guide me and my six siblings. As a result, I never felt smart. I simply learned to accept what I thought were my shortcomings.
When I became a parent, Head Start helped me see beyond my insecurities. After I enrolled the last of my children in Head Start, I decided to go to college. I was so scared. I sat in the reception area of our local community college for an hour before I asked for help. The Head Start staff helped me choose classes and navigate financial aid. They kept me going every time I felt like dropping out.
When I graduated from nursing school I became a Head Start health coordinator. I kept getting promoted but I was still shocked when they asked me to interview for the Head Start director position. I was beside myself when I got the job! I love what I do.
Thanks to Head Start, my own son entered public school three years ahead in reading and writing skills. He is in college now. My eyes tear up when I see what an incredible young man he has grown to be. Head Start taught me so much about parenting, early childhood development, and most important, about myself and my abilities.
I cannot begin to express the good fortune that Head Start has brought to my life and my entire family. My heart is full of pride as I share my Head Start story.
"(They) made sure I earned my high school diploma. That may not seem like such a big deal, but my family was homeless at the time so it was quite an accomplishment." Jesus A. Valdovinos, Head Start graduate and current Head Start administrator, Ruskin, FL
When I was a boy and my family wasn't following the tomato season along the East Coast, I was enrolled in a Migrant Head Start center in Florida. I remember the classrooms and the joyful noises coming from those classrooms. Most of all I remember the songs that were sung by teachers. Those experiences gave me a taste for learning and using new words and an appreciation for reading. After we settled down in Ruskin, a suburb of Tampa, FL, my family continued to work in the fields. I stayed in the RCMA after-school program for migrant and rural children until the third grade. A few years later, I returned to volunteer in the RCMA teen program. Some of the organizers made sure I earned my high school diploma. That may not seem like such a big deal, but my family was homeless at the time so it was quite an accomplishment.
But then my mentor told me, "Your job is not done yet. You need to go to college." The RCMA program even lent me the money for my college application. A few years down the line, my mentor asked if I wanted to volunteer again. I agreed, and when a tutor position opened up I applied and was hired. I worked as a RCMA tutor for a few years. Then I applied to become the Center Coordinator. By the time I received the position I had finished my bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida. A few years passed and I was ready for new challenge. I became the Family Support Specialist for child care programs in the Wimauma area and enrolled at Hodges University to earn my master's degree. The people at RCMA are still helping me, and I'm still seeing the results of the "Head Start" I had as a child.
"When Sarah first went to school, she hardly talked. Now she's talking, singing, and dancing." Maranda Shepherd, Head Start parent, Wheeling, WV
I'd like to share how Early Head Start is helping me and my children, Sarah, age 2, and Nevaeh, 4 months. Sarah likes to play outside with the other children and gets along well with them. She learned "gentle hands" at Head Start and no longer hits. When she first went to school, she hardly talked. Now she's talking, singing, and dancing. Through the Early Head Start Program, Sarah is learning her ABC's, too. Nevaeh is learning to sit up. She is already trying to crawl and is holding her head up on her own! Early Head Start is amazing. They're teaching my children and helping them excel.
They're also giving me the opportunity to get things done for myself. I have signed up for my GED and am working on getting my own apartment. Our family has experienced some tough times, and I feel good knowing that my daughters are safe and secure at school. There are two great teachers in each room. I am confident that my children are getting the proper care and attention. Sarah can even see her little sister through her classroom window, which she loves! I'm also getting support from the YWCA Family Violence Prevention Program. Through the Y and Early Head Start, I have the chance to provide the kind of life my children and I deserve. I can never thank these programs enough for helping me through this time in my life.
"As a parent volunteer, I have acquired more professional skills than I have gained at any job." Melvena Wilkerson, former Head Start parent, Detroit, MI
I am a proud to be part of Head Start. My two children, Kevina and Kevin, attended The Order of the Fishermen Ministry Head Start. They are doing exceptionally well in school, and I know it's because they went to Head Start. As a parent volunteer, I have acquired more professional skills than I have gained at any job. I have learned to communicate more effectively as an advocate for our children. I have also learned the importance of knowing the law and adhering to it. The information that governs Head Start has helped me to be a better-equipped parent. I have participated in Leadership Trainings, and I learned how to conduct meetings through Head Start Program Governance. The opportunity has allowed me the ability to joyfully share all I know with families. HEAD START WORKS!
"Head Start was my only chance for an early childhood education." Sheena Prince, Head Start graduate, Oxon Hill, MD
As a young child growing up in the nation's capital, I had the opportunity to attend Head Start at the Peace Lutheran Church in Southeast Washington, DC. I am an individual with special needs and a psychiatric disability and my family was on hard times, so Head Start was my only chance for an early childhood education. After my parents divorced, I suffered separation anxiety and problems adjusting to new environments. Head Start provided a place where I could acquire the fundamental, critical skills of early learning and socialization. It prepared me to enter kindergarten with a reading-comprehension level far above most students in my age group. I became an extremely advanced learner whose placement always posed a challenge to school staff and officials. As I reached high school, it was apparent that I had academic strengths that surpassed my peers.
But I faced many challenges, often due to the educational system's failure to offer good alternatives to students with exceptional learning needs. I feel that some changes are urgently needed to ensure that all children receive a quality education. My main mission in life is to advocate for improvements within the special education sector. I am working toward earning a degree in Early Childhood Education. I would like to help students in early intervention special needs programs have the rich educational background that every child, regardless of ability, deserves just as I received in Head Start.