Head Start Full Enrollment Initiative

Head Start’s Full Enrollment Initiative

In June, the Office of Head Start (“OHS”) released Program Instruction 18-04, the Full Enrollment Initiative.  The Full Enrollment Initiative likely didn’t take anyone by surprise.  For years, OHS has prioritized full enrollment through various initiatives, including converting spots to Early Head Start.  I remember hearing an OHS representative at a 2016 conference note that it was vital that the Head Start community combat the idea that Head Start is no longer needed because of programs like public preschool.

What are the enrollment obligations of Head Start agencies?

The Head Start Act requires each Head Start agency to maintain full enrollment, full stop: “Each Head Start agency shall enroll 100 percent of its funded enrollment and maintain an active waiting list at all times with ongoing outreach to the community and activities to identify underserved populations.”  Head Start Act, § 642(g).

Head Start programs must report their “actual enrollment,” or the actual number of children enrolled in the program, on a monthly basis, and must include an explanation if actual enrollment is less than “funded enrollment,” or the number of children that the agency is funded to serve.

Sounds easy, right?  Not so fast.

Under enrollment has been an area of significant focus for years.  And while Head Start agencies have generally fared pretty well in maintaining full enrollment, there have been challenges.  The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported in 2007 that 5% of funded Head Start slots were unfilled.  The report also noted that 19% of the grantees reviewed had filled less than 95% of their funded enrollment slots.  Grantees listed several challenges to being fully enrolled, including the extremely low income eligibility threshold, competition with public preschool, and transportation issues.

Interesting, but that data is more than ten years old.  What’s the current story?

Reports have continued to suggest that Head Start spots remain unfilled despite the fact that demand for Head Start slots far outpaces supply.  A 2016 study by the National Institute for Early Education Research found that in most states Head Start served less than 30% of eligible three- and four-year-olds.

So, what’s the Full Enrollment Initiative all about?

The Full Enrollment Initiative, for the most part, sets forth the authority of OHS and requirements of Head Start agencies that are outlined in the Head Start Act.  But the Initiative does provide some additional guidance and outline an appeal process, which are described below.

The Head Start Act requires OHS to identify, twice per year, those Head Start agencies that report actual enrollment that is less than funded enrollment for at least 4 consecutive months.  The Full Enrollment Initiative sets forth OHS’s interpretation of the four-month requirement.  To determine whether a program has been under-enrolled for four consecutive months, OHS excludes program breaks. The Full Enrollment Initiative offers as an example a program that is under-enrolled in May and June and then on summer break in July and August.  If the program is again under-enrolled in September and October, OHS would consider that program under-enrolled for four consecutive months.

If a program is identified as under-enrolled, the Head Start Act requires the agency and OHS to collaborate to develop a “plan and timetable for reducing or eliminating under-enrollment.”  That plan must take into account the following factors:

  • the quality and extent of the outreach, recruitment and communitywide strategic planning and needs assessment conducted by such agency;
  • changing demographics, mobility of populations, and the identification of new underserved low-income populations;
  • facilities-related issues that may impact enrollment;
  • the ability to provide full-working-day programs, where needed;
  • the availability and use by families of other early childhood education and development options.

OHS must also provide timely and ongoing technical assistance to an agency to assist it to implement the enrollment plan.

Here comes the enforcement part!

The Head Start Act gives an agency at least twelve months to implement its improvement plan and attempt to bring its enrollment to 100%.  If, after twelve months, the Head Start agency is operating at 97% of its funded enrollment, the Secretary may designate the agency as “chronically underenrolled” and “recapture, withhold, or reduce the base grant for the program by a percentage equal to the percentage difference between funded enrollment and actual enrollment” for the most recent year the agency was determined to be underenrolled.

Note, the Secretary is authorized by the Head Start Act to waive or reduce the percentage recaptured, withheld or reduced if the Secretary finds that:

  • the causes of the enrollment shortfall, or a portion thereof, are related to the agency’s serving significant numbers of highly mobile children, or some other significant causes.
  • The shortfall can reasonably be expected to be temporary; or
  • The number of slots allotted to the agency is small enough that underenrollment does not create a significant shortfall.

To take advantage of this waiver, Head Start agencies should make a formal request to the Secretary to consider waiving recapture, withholding or reduction of grant funds.

The Full Enrollment Initiative also outlines an appeal process.  Grantees may appeal a recapture, withholding, or reduction in funding by submitting a written appeal with supporting evidence within 30 days of delivery of the Chronically Underenrolled Designation Letter.  If a grantee desires a hearing, it must ask for the hearing in its written appeal.  If a hearing is requested, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) will schedule the hearing within sixty days.  At the hearing, the grantee may present witness testimony.  ACF will communicate its decision to the grantee within 30 days of the hearing.

What can a Head Start agency do if its program is at risk?

  • Be proactive. For the most part, the causes of chronic underenrollment don’t appear overnight.  If you start to see evidence of a problem, begin reviewing your community assessment, self assessment and outreach and recruitment efforts to see where improvements or changes may be made.  And as you do this…


  • We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:  documentation is your best defense.  If your program is struggling with enrollment, you’ll want to document everything, including your outreach and recruitment efforts, your efforts to obtain training and technical assistance in this area, and any efforts to address this issue with OHS, including requests to convert program slots.  If you enter into an enrollment improvement plan, you’ll want to document the process of creating and implementing the plan, including the factors that were considered, the technical and training assistance provided by OHS, and the actions of the Head Start agency in implementing the plan.
  • Reach out to counsel.  The Full Enrollment Initiative sets forth an appeal process for appealing any recapture, withholding or reduction of grant funds.  If you’d like to take advantage of the appeal process, you may want to reach out to a lawyer to get more information about your options and to preserve your rights.

Do you have more questions?  Reach out, we’d love to hear from you!

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