Head Start Program

Head Start is a national program that promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through education, health, nutritional, social and other services.

How Head Start works

Administered by the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start offers grants to local public and private agencies to provide comprehensive child development services to economically disadvantaged children and families, with a special focus on helping preschoolers develop the early reading and math skills they need to be successful in school. Recognizing that the earliest years matter to children's growth and development, Early Head Start was established to serve children from birth to three years.

Head Start programs engage parents in their children's learning, helping them make progress toward their children's education, literacy and employment goals. Head Start programs also place significant emphasis on the involvement of parents in local programs.

Eligibility for Head Start programs

Children are eligible for Head Start services if they meet the following requirements:

  • Under the age of five. A child must be between birth and five years of age to enroll in Head Start and birth to three years of age for Early Head Start.
  • From a low-income family. Children must be from families with low incomes (according to the Poverty Guidelines published by the federal government) or be receiving public assistance, for example Supplemental Security Income benefits. Varying percentages of children enrolled in a Head Start program may be from families with incomes above the Poverty Guidelines if certain conditions have been met.
  • In foster care or homeless. Children in foster care and homeless children are categorically eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start services, regardless of income.
  • Disabled. Although not a guaranteed service, 10 percent of Head Start enrollments are offered to children with disabilities, regardless of income.
  • Pregnant women. Pregnant women may also be eligible for Early Head Start.

Overseas equivalents to Head Start services

Because Head Start functions only domestically, the Department of Defense developed the Sure Start program to provide similar services to families living overseas. Sure Start is a DoD Education Activity program for command-sponsored children stationed at overseas installations. Sure Start assists qualified preschool-age military children by providing education, health and nutrition, social and parent-involvement services based on income and need guidelines. The services provided by Sure Start involve the children, their families, schools and communities to ensure a comprehensive, coordinated approach to early childhood education

Because the program is expensive to replicate, Sure Start is reserved for those children and families who will most benefit from participation in the program. Sure Start is primarily for qualified children who turn four years old by September 1 of the current school year. Children qualify for Sure Start based on family dynamics, which may put the child at risk. The DoDEA identifies the following family dynamics as possible qualifiers for children for Sure Start:

  • Rank of sponsor (Sponsors with ranks of E-1 to E-4 and civilian rank equivalents have first priority for the program.)
  • Single parent household
  • Parent(s) not a high-school graduate
  • Parent a teenager when first child was born
  • One or both parents speaking a language other than English as their primary language
  • Low-birth weight
  • Parent on remote assignment or temporary duty for three months or longer
  • Four or more children close in age and living in the home
  • Child with an severely disabled older sibling

Finding Head Start or Sure Start services locally

If you are located in the United States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Marshall Island, Palau, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, services are provided through Head Start. To find local services, call Head Start Knowledge and Information Management Services toll-free at 866-763-6481, or use the online national Head Start Program Locator Tool on the Department of Health and Human Services website.

If you are located in any other overseas location with a U.S. military installation, your services are provided through Sure Start. For more information on the Sure Start program, visit DoDEA's Early Childhood Education - Sure Start.


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