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Head Start, created in 1965, is designed to prepare low-income preschool children for school by providing a comprehensive set of early child development services primarily through communitybased organizations. Over the last decade there have been a number of changes in Head Start's operating environment, including a decrease in the number of poor children; an increase in the number, size, and scope of other federal and state early childhood programs; and an expansion in Head Start spending and enrollment. Given this environment, GAO was asked to determine (1) what is known about the extent to which Head Start programs are underenrolled, (2) ACF regional officials' and Head Start grantees' views on what factors contribute to underenrollment, and (3) what actions ACF and grantees have taken to address underenrollment.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services 1. The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to take steps to ensure the accuracy of enrollment data reported in its annual nationwide survey of grantees.
Closed - Implemented
Following our report, HHS commissioned a study to assess, in part, the accuracy of the enrollment information collected through its annual survey of grantees. The study has been completed and HHS is currently reviewing the contractor's recommendations. The contractor found that statistics reported by individual programs were frequently inaccurate and might be unreliable for program monitoring or risk assessment purposes. HHS subsequently implemented an end-of-month enrollment reporting system and provided more systematic instruction to triennial review teams regarding assessing enrollment.
Department of Health and Human Services 2. The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to develop a standard criterion for regional offices to use in identifying grantees whose underenrollment merits monitoring or corrective actions.
Closed - Implemented
Following issuance of our report, HHS issued a program instruction (ACYF-PI-HS-04-03) that underscored the need to maintain full enrollment and indicated that regions should work with grantees who self-identified as underenrolled to develop a strategy for reaching full enrollment. This instruction emphasized the Office's concern that grantees maintain full enrollment, but did not specify criteria that regions would use to categorize underenrollment as an issue for monitoring or corrective action. However, in FY07, the Department fielded a web-based tool for collecting monthly enrollment data that requires all grantees to provide narrative explanation for reported enrollment rates below 90% of funded levels.
Department of Health and Human Services 3. The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to develop an additional measure of aggregate services other than total enrollment that takes into consideration the different levels of service provided by full-day and part-day programs.
Closed - Implemented
An additional measure of total services (e.g., child hours or child days of service) could improve HHS' ability to compare the efficiency of grantees offering different mixes of full- and part-day and full- and part-year services. ACF has announced no plans to institute such a measure, indicating that information grantees provide on program options is sufficient. However, among those grantees seeking reductions in the level of funded enrollment, HHS addressed similar efficiency concerns by instructing the grantee to first review (and expect that ACF would review) whether the grantee is offering sufficient numbers of program hours, including full-day services, to meet community needs.
Department of Health and Human Services 4. The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to work with regional offices to develop a more systematic process for them to collect reliable enrollment data during the program year so that they can address underenrollment more quickly.
Closed - Implemented
The Agency has replaced its survey-based reports with a web-based enrollment reporting system through which grantees are to input end-of-month enrollment data that are then available in real time to regional and headquarters staff. This new system provides current data on enrollment at several points during the year, offering advantages over the retrospective reports for selected months formerly gathered through Head Start's national survey of grantees. The new system represents potential improvements in the timeliness, coverage, and availability of enrollment data. Additionally, the FY08 triennial review process now includes more systematic instructions to reviewers regarding assessing grantees' ability to meet funded enrollment.

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