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Head Start programs
A child plays at a Head Start program in Mississippi. Credit: Sarah Garland/The Hechinger Report

The Kawerak Head Start center in Nome, Alaska is the only option parents have when it comes to early childhood education there. The center is also much more than just a preschool for the families in this tiny city on the tundra. Kawerak provides medical professionals like a dentist, audiologist, and vision screener to its 240 Alaska Native children and their families. 

This is common in rural areas, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress, which found in some states, the federally-funded program accounts for one-third of all child care centers. In 2015-16, 68 percent of rural families with a child enrolled in Head Start received a family service including job training, parenting education, and substance abuse prevention through the program.  

In Mississippi, with its disproportionately large rural population, Head Start centers have a deep impact on children and families, according to Nita Norphlet-Thompson, the executive director for the Mississippi Head Start Association. “In Mississippi, especially in rural under-resourced, economically challenged communities, 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,” Norphlet-Thompson said.  

Nationwide, access to quality childcare is an issue that keeps parents out of work or puts children in subpar centers. Rural areas are especially prone to “child care deserts” which means there are either no centers available or not enough spaces available for children in that area. Leila Schochet, research and advocacy manager for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress, said Head Start is not only important for families, it’s also critical for rural economies. “It’s important that children have access to safe and quality childcare while their parents are working,” Schochet said. “We know Head Start in rural communities is really important for promoting both healthy child development and family economic security.” 

Related: We know how to provide good childcare, we just don’t insist on it 

Early childhood education experts have long argued that high quality early childhood education opportunities can have a profound impact on students, especially in low-income communities. In rural areas, nearly 30 percent of children under 5 live in poverty and are more likely than their urban peers to experience food insecurity and rely on food stamps. 

Mississippi’s Head Start centers provide each child with five screenings when they enroll, including a vision, hearing and dental screening, to ensure no health issues are standing in the way of learning. Many children in the state’s rural or low-income communities would not get these screenings if not for Head Start, Norphlet-Thompson said. The centers also work with each parent to create a plan for short and long-term goals and connects families with resources that can help parents meet their goals and services that can help children with any developmental delays that arise.  

The report found that Head Start centers are present in 86 percent of the nation’s rural counties, and served more than 175,000 children during 2015-16. In a sample of 10 states, which includes largely rural states like South Dakota, Colorado, and Mississippi, Head Start centers represented the only child care center available in nearly 50 counties. Head Start centers also employ nearly 50,000 staff members in rural areas. 

Related: Should Wall Street pay for preschool? 

The effectiveness of Head Start has been debated for years, with some studies finding it does not have a positive effect on educational achievement, while others concluded that the program does improve educational outcomes. 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. A 2017 study found the children of people who attended preschool are better off than their peers whose parents did not attend preschool. Schochet argues the discussion about Head Start shouldn’t just focus on academic outcomes but “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.”  

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in educationRead more about early education on The Hechinger Report and sign up for our weekly newsletter. 

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