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Mel Gravely

Serving Homeless Children in Head Start

Children in temporary housing (often combined into one group using the catch-all term “homeless”) are one of the most difficult to serve populations for early childhood education programs.  According to a document by the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS), children in temporary housing are half as likely to participate in early childhood education than other children.

However, homelessness doesn’t always mean living “on the streets” in makeshift campsites or in a car, although that unfortunately does happen to many children and families.  The 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistant Act states that children are also considered homeless if they live in shelters, a hotel/motel, share housing with others such as family members or friends, or a combination of all of the above.

Since revisions to the Head Start Act in 2007, children who are homeless are automatically eligible for Head Start without income verification, and should be prioritized for enrollment [Sec. 640 (m)(1)]. With Head Start now requiring full enrollment of all designees, this is a good time to review your strategy for recruitment and enrollment for children in temporary housing.

This tip sheet from NYS-TEACHS is a short document and provides a good outline of the rules for recruiting children in temporary housing, as well as some tips on where you might get started in identifying families.  It includes:

  1. Partnering with local school districts to help identify the younger siblings of school-aged children who are known to be in temporary housing.
  2. Engaging with local shelter. Be sure that the social worker is well-versed on the Head Start program and its benefits.
  3. Prioritizing enrollment by revising your program’s selection criteria to award more points to children in temporary housing.
  4. Reserve seats specifically for children in temporary housing (the new Head Start Performance Standards allows 30 extra days to fill seats for these children).

The final tip may be new to some programs. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) created a document titled “Reserving Slots in Head Start for Homeless Children.” It’s a good introduction to how programs might go about reserving slots for homeless children and utilizing Head Start’s rules that allows for an extra month to recruit homeless children.

First, it says that programs should decide how many slots to reserve BEFORE the school year starts (programs can reserve up to 3% of its slots). Then, it says that if a program is still underenrolled at the beginning of the year, it should consider using the additional month of time allowed by the Performance Standards to fill any vacancies first with children in temporary housing.  Then, if they cannot, they can take another 30 days to fill the slots based on their selection criteria.

Is your program actively recruiting children in temporary housing? Do you have any tips for other agencies that you’d like to share? Leave your comments below!

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