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Transportation to centers is one of the biggest barriers for families accessing Head Start programs, according to a survey from the National Head Start Association — distances that might be manageable for adults on their own can be insurmountable with a baby or toddler in tow.

A new awareness campaign sponsored by the association, which represents Head Start providers, and a philanthropic group called the Civic Mapping Initiative, is hoping to ease that burden by encouraging local transit agencies to add bus stops closer to Head Start centers.

As a kickoff to the effort, the Memphis Area Transit Authority added three bus stops to its existing routes to bring them closer to Head Start programs in the community.

A lot of parents who send their children to the Porter-Leath Early Head Start programs in Memphis rely on families and friends to help them get there, said Sheronda Smith, director of Early Head Start at Porter-Leath and president of the Tennessee Head Start Association.

Often when families can’t get a ride, their children simply don’t attend that day.

“We have had families who we’ve had to place back on the waiting list because they make the decision that it’s too hard to get to the center,” Smith said.

There are more than 16,400 Head Start centers across the United States that provide federally funded pre-K and school readiness programs for low-income families. About 42 percent of those programs are within 0.2 miles of public transit, or what the National Head Start Association considers a walkable distance for families with toddlers.

Another 29 percent of centers are not near any public transit, or more than five miles away. It makes sense that some centers are far from transit because many Head Start programs serve rural areas, said Abigail Seldin, co-founder of the Civic Mapping Initiative.

The rest of the nation’s centers, nearly 30 percent, fall somewhere in the middle: between 0.2 and five miles away from public transportation.

The Head Start association and the mapping initiative are focusing their efforts on a smaller subset of those centers –- the 19 percent that have a bus stop within a mile of their location. Simply adding a bus stop can make the distance walkable for families with toddlers, Seldin said.

“In those cases, the ask of a transit agency is to move a stop perhaps 2,000 feet,” Seldin said. “Anyone who has walked 1,000 feet with a toddler understands viscerally why this concept is so important and why these changes are essential.”

In some of these areas, local transit authorities can add bus stops without significantly changing routes or adding to their costs. In Memphis, buses were driving right past the Head Start centers before the transit agency added three stops as part of this mapping campaign.

“It’s a low-cost solution that makes a big difference for families and for early childcare workers who are commuting,” Seldin said.

Smith, with the Porter-Leath program in Memphis, hopes the added stops will help stabilize attendance for students whose families don’t have reliable transportation.

“Moving this closer to the centers and making it more accessible to them is important because now they don’t have to depend on someone else,” Smith said.

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