The Challenges of Rural Pre-K

In cities and suburbs, localities and nonprofits generally have sufficient resources to offer economically viable pre-K programs, be they Head Start, school-based or other types of programs. Rural areas, on the other hand, face challenges to delivering quality pre-K services.

“Low population density means that local governments and nonprofits face funding challenges and service delivery may become very costly when great distances are involved. As a result, resources and public services for pre-K in rural areas tend to be scarce,” noted authors of a Center for American Progress report issued last month, “A Compass for Families: Head Start in Rural America.

The report finds that rural children are less likely to be enrolled in pre-K programs than their urban and suburban peers—according to one study that the report cites, a third of rural children entered kindergarten without having attended pre-K vs. a quarter of their non-rural peers. Moreover, the poverty rate for children in rural areas is higher than that for non-rural children. The Head Start program has been crucial, therefore, in delivering early childhood education services to low-income families in rural areas.

The report examines the performance of Head Start—including Early Head Start, Head Start, Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, and American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start—in rural areas and offers these key findings:

• Head Start has centers in 86 percent of America’s 1,760 rural counties.
• In the 2015-2016 program year, rural Head Start programs enrolled more than 175,000 children, employed nearly 50,000 staff, and delivered family services to more than 110,000 families.
• Within a 10-state sample, this study finds that 1 out of every 3 rural child care centers is a Head Start program.
• Across those 10 states, CAP identifies 48 counties that would have no child care centers if not for Head Start.
• Despite higher poverty rates, fewer resources, and unique challenges, rural Head Start programs provide children with an evidence-based early education and connect families with critical services at rates similar to those of Head Start programs in metropolitan [areas].

Head Start programs serve 7.6 percent of children under 6 in rural areas, vs. 3.3 percent of children in metro areas, a fact which underscores its importance to these communities.

The report identifies certain challenges that rural Head Start programs face, such as finding and retaining qualified staff, and securing transportation over long distances for both staff and children; it also notes that some rural programs have been successful at building relationships with local partners (such as health care providers and community colleges) to leverage their resources, and that they in turn can share their resources with other local organizations.

The authors recommend that policymakers go beyond examining Head Start’s academic outcomes to consider how to improve the reach of its many services into hard-to-serve communities.

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