Local Early Childhood Partnerships

Data-Sharing Between Head Start Programs and Receiving Elementary Schools

In many communities, Head Start programs serve the largest portion of the most vulnerable children who will enter kindergarten in any particular school. After these children leave the program and move into elementary school, Head Start programs are often interested in understanding how children they've served are faring.

Sharing child-level data between Head Start programs and receiving elementary schools can help programs and schools better serve children. It can provide a basis to improve coordination and services. For example, aggregated data on Head Start children's progress in elementary school could:

  • Inform professional development for Head Start staff
  • Facilitate positive transitions into elementary for children and families
  • Generally support conversations between Head Start programs and public schools about how to better serve children and families

At a minimum, the Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) require Head Start programs to coordinate with schools or other appropriate agencies to ensure children's relevant records are transferred to the school or next placement in which a child will enroll, while protecting the privacy of child records.

A Head Start program and school district or local education agency (LEA) could choose to go beyond these requirements and engage in a more comprehensive data-sharing effort. The program may work with the school district to identify a cohort of Head Start children. Assigning these children unique identifiers when they first enter the public school system allows their progress to be more easily tracked throughout their school journey. Appropriate staff from the school district, Head Start program, or outside research agency could conduct analyses of Head Start children's performance at key points in elementary school, and share this information with the Head Start program.

Programs who choose to share data with a local school district or LEA should do so in a manner that conforms to the program's individual policies for the privacy protections of child records, in accordance with HSPPS 45 CFR §1303 Subpart C. When sharing data, it is best practice for programs to have written agreements with the school district or LEA. Such memoranda of understanding (MOU) lay out what protections are in place to ensure the program maintains proper oversight and protection of any data shared with the school district. In addition, Head Start programs should think carefully about what data they share. Programs likely do not need to share all of their data, rather only those elements deemed necessary to support the purpose of the data-sharing effort.

Data-Sharing in Practice: AVANCE-Houston's Partnership with the Houston Independent School District

AVANCE Inc., founded in 1973, is a nonprofit organization that seeks to "strengthen families in at-risk communities through effective child and family education." They serve approximately 2,200 Head Start and Early Head Start children in the northwest region of Harris County, TX.

In 2009, AVANCE-Houston asked the Houston Independent School District (HISD) to follow its Head Start children who were also enrolled in the district through the early elementary and middle school grades to better understand children's school achievement. HISD, AVANCE-Houston, and later, three other Head Start grantees in the Houston area partnered to conduct a 10-year longitudinal study to examine the school performance of students who participated in Head Start programs.

Antionette Montgomery, Ed.D., Head Start director at AVANCE-Houston, shared, "In addition to our interest in knowing how our Head Start children were performing in public school, we also wanted to prove that our program actually does work." It was AVANCE-Houston's hope that the longitudinal study and partnership with HISD would help them determine:

  • How their children are performing in public school
  • Identify areas in which children's skills could be strengthened
  • Target strategies for improving their program

AVANCE-Houston and HISD worked together before they began the longitudinal study. In addition to AVANCE-Houston offering Head Start services on several elementary school campuses, the district provided space within their schools for the agency to hold their Parent-Child Education Program (PCEP). PCEP provides parenting classes and early childhood education for families and their young children birth to age 3. "When we started this [longitudinal study], there was a coordinator in place overseeing all of the pre-K programs within the district. She was working in that position for years and knew Head Start very well, and could advocate for Head Start at the campus level. That made a difference for us," Dr. Montgomery explained.

The relationships established made it easier for AVANCE-Houston and HISD staff to work together on the longitudinal study. Both agencies had data savvy staff to help with the project. AVANCE-Houston staff members already used data internally for program improvement purposes and were enthusiastic about this opportunity to partner with the district. AVANCE-Houston and HISD also had staff members with backgrounds in research and analysis who managed data-related tasks. AVANCE ensured that all Head Start parents consented to this use of this data and established a MOU with HISD.

The longitudinal tracking study has facilitated an even stronger partnership between AVANCE-Houston and the HISD. The partnership and subsequent study have provided a unique opportunity to use linked data to inform continuous quality improvement in AVANCE-Houston's Head Start programs. "The results from the longitudinal tracking study offer Head Start additional evidence for areas we can work on and areas where we are stronger. For example, one year we were scoring lower in math, so we used improvement funds to bring specialists in to work with teachers and improve instruction related to math skills," said Dr. Montgomery. "During another year, we partnered with the local library to promote parent-child reading and provided a parent summit to coach parents on effective co-reading skills."

Since the study began, AVANCE-Houston has received reports on its Head Start children who transitioned to HISD, including a report on their progress in third grade. They were excited to learn that by third grade, their Head Start graduates were performing just as well, or in some cases higher, than the district's other economically disadvantaged students in areas such as reading and mathematics. According to Dr. Montgomery, the most valuable lesson learned from the longitudinal study thus far is that children tend to perform higher on their kindergarten assessments if they were on a "dually-enrolled" campus during preschool.

"Dually enrolled" children are enrolled in both the district pre-K and AVANCE-Houston's Head Start programs on a school campus. Consequently, those children become a more integrated part of the school district system. They also have certified teachers in addition to receiving the intensive supports of Head Start. For its stand-alone Head Start sites, AVANCE-Houston has a partnership with a charter school, but those children are not actually on a school campus. AVANCE-Houston is looking to expand with some of their district partners based on this information.

There were some initial concerns from AVANCE-Houston with how the data would be used, particularly if it showed Head Start children were not scoring as high as other children in the district. But through their relationship with HISD at the time study began, they were reassured that findings from the data would be used for quality improvement purposes, and not in a punitive manner.

The most important piece of advice Dr. Montgomery offers to other Head Start grantees considering sharing data with a local school or another local agency is, "Don't be afraid! Be open. We were one of the first programs in the Houston area that started data-sharing, and our success really comes down to having good relationships." She adds, "Nowadays, we have to share data. It helps Head Start programs justify their existence. I recommend that Head Start programs reach out to local districts. You can start small, just looking at how children are doing in kindergarten and grow from there."

Additional Resources

Data in Head Start and Early Head Start:

Last Updated: October 11, 2019