Local Early Childhood Partnerships

Coordinated Enrollment Across Early Care and Education Settings

Coordinated enrollment for early care and education (ECE) programs allows more families from a particular area to enroll in the program that best meets their needs. Multiple ECE service providers, including Head Start, state preschool, and child care programs, may develop a joint application and work with families on selection and enrollment.

Coordinated enrollment can reduce burden on parents; they only need to submit one application to get their child enrolled in an ECE program. It also can help families learn what services they are eligible for and choose from options within their communities. Additionally, the coordinated enrollment process can ensure a more efficient use of limited federal, state, and local resources. In most communities, no single early childhood provider (e.g., public school, Head Start program, or child care) has enough seats to provide all children with a high-quality ECE experience that will prepare them for entry into kindergarten. Coordinated enrollment can help build a unified system of early childhood education in order to maximize the use of available ECE seats in a geographic area.

If a single application is not feasible, programs can discuss strategies to assist parents in the registration process to eliminate duplication of enrollment paperwork and appointments, where possible. For instance, all local ECE partners could develop similar enrollment, developmental screening, and registration activities that are family-friendly and welcoming and will meet the needs of the community. They could also coordinate information campaigns and eligibility determination and match eligible families to services based on need and preference. These efforts both support families and increase access to ECE programs, even in absence of a more sophisticated coordinated enrollment process.

The following is a real-life example of how a coordinated enrollment system can be developed and some of its benefits.

Coordinated Enrollment in Practice: Michigan Family Resources Head Start for Kent County

Michigan Family Resources, founded in 1991, is a nonprofit agency that provides holistic, family-centered services to qualifying families in Kent County, MI. The agency manages both Head Start center-based services for preschool-age children and Early Head Start home-based services for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers.

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Michigan Family Resources Head Start worked in concert with several other organizations that provide preschool services to families in Grand Rapids, MI to develop a coordinated enrollment system for their geographic service area. This joint enrollment system focuses on 4-year-olds going into preschool. The system includes the Head Start program, school districts, community-based organizations that provide state or locally funded pre-K, and for-profit preschools that have some full-scholarship slots for eligible children.

The coordinated enrollment system was developed in 2017, largely because of the expansion in available pre-K options in Grand Rapids. Prior to the development of the system, each ECE program was using its own recruitment materials and had separate enrollment processes. Families had to fill out multiple applications and coordinate with several different programs to get their children enrolled in a preschool slot. The various programs offering pre-K in the Grand Rapids service area realized they needed to work together to reduce enrollment frustrations across programs and maximize the number of children and families receiving services. Building stronger relationships with each other also allowed programs to plan for future geographic and service area changes based on the evolving needs of families.

The various providers formed a committee to create a universal application and database. Because competition among preschool providers was a concern, the committee also included outside organizations as part of the planning process to provide a different perspective. These included philanthropic organizations and the Kent Intermediate School District (ISD), which coordinates school districts in Kent County.

The committee compared applications across the providers to determine what key elements were needed in a universal application, as well as what elements in each application could be eliminated. The various programs signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to participate in the joint enrollment effort. The committee brought in an information technology (IT) professional from the Kent ISD to help create and manage a centralized database for coordinated enrollment. The committee also developed a joint 800 number and website, which is managed though Kent Intermediate School District. They worked together to create the content for the website and the script for the 800 number.

MaDonna Princer is the executive director of Michigan Family Resources Head Start. She participated on the committee on behalf of the Head Start program. She said, "We tried different things, met regularly to discuss what was working and what wasn't. We examined what we were hearing from families and considered what adjustments to make for next year."

The coordinated enrollment system they established in Grand Rapids received some funding from Great Start Collaborative of Michigan, as well as from the Michigan State Department of Education, separate from state pre-K funds. Initially, a few foundations provided funding to get things off the ground, including PNC Bank and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Today, parents are directed to one application for pre-K, either on paper or online, from the websites of any participating program. Parents indicate a first, second, and third preschool choice for their child. All applications are processed through the Kent ISD. The application is directed to the parent's first choice program, and the program contacts them directly.

"The most important aspect of developing a coordinated enrollment system is the way it helps providers honor parent choice, and we must inform parents to help them make the right choice. It shouldn't just be a sales pitch," said Princer. She explains that it's also important to honor parent choice without taking away choice from other parents. For example, if pre-K slots fill up with low-income families, it could leave the Head Start program with vacant slots, and some families over the poverty line without a preschool option.

Michigan Family Resources Head Start made sure the joint application had all the information they needed to determine if a family is eligible for Head Start services. This allows them to be responsive to evolving community needs.

When parents call the 800 number, they are immediately informed as to whether or not they are eligible for the Head Start program. Eligible parents can be transferred to the direct Head Start phone line. If the parent is interested in another pre-K program, the phone representative gives the family's information to the other program so the other program can follow-up.

As a result of the coordinated enrollment system, about 75% of eligible 4-year-olds in the Grand Rapids area are now receiving pre-K services. The burden on parents applying to preschool has also been reduced. Parents feel more confident about the process and the preschool experience. "Every year, we are finding our classrooms full earlier and earlier in the summer. It's become common knowledge in the community for folks to enroll this way, so even the very needy families who typically enroll later are now enrolling earlier, and this means they can start getting Head Start services sooner," Princer explained.

Before the development of the coordinated enrollment system, Michigan Family Resources Head Start maintained their own waitlist, separate from local pre-K programs. The Head Start program shared their waitlist with pre-K programs after making Head Start enrollment decisions. Three years ago, Grand Rapids pre-K providers had many empty seats for their 4-year-olds classrooms, and many 3-year-olds that needed services couldn't get a spot. "If we had known this issue earlier in the summer, the Head Start program could have flipped some of their classrooms to serve more 3-year-olds," explained Princer. Now, the centralized database maintains the Head Start waitlist so that all other pre-K programs can see its composition, where families are on the waitlist, and if a family is in the process of being enrolled in a Head Start program. The new coordinated enrollment system allows ECE programs to be aware of the needs of the community earlier and be able to plan services accordingly.

All applications for 3-year-olds go to the Head Start program first. If the family is over-income or the program doesn't have a spot, the Head Start program connects that family with a different provider. The Head Start program maintains the 3-year-old waitlist for the county, as they are the main provider of services for 3-year-olds in the area.

"Now that the system has been running for a few years, we are reviewing all these things again. We want to know if any partner is feeling like this process isn't working for them. We have moved from just cooperating to being more collaborative and more transparent with the other participating pre-K providers," said Ms. Princer.

Ms. Princer wants other Head Start programs interested in developing a coordinated enrollment system to understand this takes time. "It's not an overnight fix and not one size fits all for every community. It takes commitment to an ongoing process. And most importantly, transparency is very necessary for building trust and relationships."