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Head Start centers make up one-third of the center-based child care programs available in some of Mississippi’s most rural areas, providing critical child care services, access to health care, and early intervention services that children may not otherwise get, according to a new report.

The Center for American Progress report found that 66 percent of children enrolled in Head Start in Mississippi live in rural areas, where 55 percent of Head Start child care centers are located. Only 13 percent of the centers are found in metropolitan areas. In addition to child care, Mississippi’s Head Start centers provide each child with health screening in five areas when they enroll, including vision, hearing and dental, to ensure that no health issues are standing in the way of learning, according to Nita Norphlet-Thompson, the executive director for the Mississippi Head Start Association. By the end of each year, 91 percent of Mississippi’s rural Head Start children are up to date on preventive and primary health care, 95 percent are up to date on immunizations, and 93 percent have received continuous dental care.

The centers also work with each parent to create a plan for short- and long-term goals and connect families with resources that can help parents meet their goals, and services that can help overcome developmental delays in children. In Mississippi, 68 percent of rural families with a child enrolled in Head Start received some type of family service, including job training, substance abuse prevention, and parenting education.

Norphlet-Thompson said that in Mississippi’s rural, under-resourced, economically challenged communities, Head Start is critical for providing child care as well as medical care that children may not otherwise receive. “Head Start is really the difference … in a family being able to actualize their hopes and dreams, or to just be a victim of the cyclical poverty that just seems to plague so many families in our country and in Mississippi in particular,” she said.

Nationwide, rural areas are especially likely to have “child care deserts,” areas in which there are either no centers available or not enough spaces available for children in that area.

Despite the reported benefits provided to children who enroll in Head Start, the academic effectiveness of the program has been debated for years. A 2016 study found that among African-American children especially, Head Start has a positive impact on social, emotional and behavioral development and also increases positive parenting practices for the families of all students, regardless of race. However, in 2017, children who attended Head Start in Mississippi scored lower on the state’s kindergarten readiness assessment than children who attended public or private pre-K, a licensed childcare center, a family day care center, or stayed at home until kindergarten.

Leila Schochet, research and advocacy manager for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress said the discussion about Head Start should look beyond academic outcomes and “also consider the role that Head Start plays … and the array of necessary services Head Start is providing, often to families and children who might not otherwise receive them.”

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