The History Of Head Start

Head Start is a program of the Federal government, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. The purpose of Head Start is to help low-income families break the cycle of poverty by promoting economic self-sufficiency and to prepare low-income children to enter kindergarten confidently, with the social, physical, emotional, and cognitive skills and competencies necessary for success in school.

The 1994 reauthorization of the Head Start Act established Early Head Start to serve pregnant women and families with children zero to three years of age.

The 2007 Improving Head Start and School and School Readiness Acy introduced several provisions to strengthen Head Start quality. These included:

  • Alignment of Head Start school readiness goals with state early learning standards
  • Higher qualifications for the Head Start teaching workforce
  • State Advisory Councils on Early Care and Education in every state
  • Increased program monitoring, including a review of child outcomes and annual financial audits
  • Redesign of the Office of Head Start training and technical assistance system to support programs' success through National Centers and state-based systems
  • Development of a system of designation renewal for grants
  • Revision of the HSPPS

In 2011 grants became 5 year grants instead of 3 year grants and the Designation Renewal System (DRS) was started.

In 2016 the Office of Head Start updated the Head Start Program Performance Standards to reflect research on best practices and streamline standards

Head Start and Early Head Start programs work with the following groups on state legislation:
  • Prenatal to 3 Coalition
  • Target Home Visiting Coalition
  • MN Child Care Coalition
  • Voices and Choices for Children
  • Children's Defense Fund
  • Think Small
  • Close the Gap by 5

Head Start grants are made directly to local public or private nonprofit agencies through the regional offices of the federal Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The federal-to-local flow of dollars is key to ensuring children and families receive programming tailored to their unique community trends and needs.

Federal law requires the community to contribute at least 20 percent of the cost of a Head Start program. Many programs use in-kind contributions to meet the match requirements including the value of volunteer hours and costs of donated space, materials, and services.

Since 1988

Minnesota has appropriated state general funds for Minnesota Head Start programs. Minnesota has 34 Head Start and/or Early Head Start programs. Head Start was housed in the Minnesota Department of Economic Opportunity until 2002 when under Governor Pawlenty it was moved to the Department of Education. 

A move widely opposed by the Head Start and early childhood development community who fought and continue to fight to ensure Head Start continues to be a comprehensive program that addresses the whole child and his or her family.

Head Start programs promote the school readiness of infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children from low-income families. Services are provided in a variety of settings including centers, family child care, and children's own home. Head Start programs also engage parents or other key family members in positive relationships, with a focus on family wellbeing. Parents participate in leadership roles, including having a say in program operations.

Head Start programs support children's growth in a positive learning environment through a variety of services, which include:

Early learning and development

Children's readiness for school and beyond is fostered through individualized learning experiences. Through relationships with adults, play, and planned and spontaneous instruction, children grow in many aspects of development. These include social skills, emotional well-being, language and literacy skills, mathematics, and science concepts. Early learning experiences also include the cultural and language heritage of each child and family in relevant ways. Parents, including grandparents, foster parents, and other primary caregivers, are recognized as children's first and most influential teachers. Their knowledge of their children is central to each child's individualized approach. Additionally, Head Start programs work with families, school districts and other entities to facilitate a smooth transition to kindergarten for each child.


Health and physical development are crucial for early learning opportunities that require children to fully explore and experience their environment. Head Start programs provide safe and healthy learning experiences indoors and outdoors.All children receive health screenings and nutritious meals, and programs connect families with medical, dental, and mental health services to ensure children are receiving the care and attention they need. Children receive support for building resiliency to cope with possible adverse effects of trauma. Families also receive mental health consultation focused on each child's needs.

Family well-being

Parents and families are offered program services to support family well-being and to achieve family goals, such as housing stability, continued education, and financial security. Programs support and strengthen parent-child relationships and engage families in the learning and development of their child.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs are available at no cost to pregnant women and children ages birth to 5 from low-income families. Programs may provide transportation to the centers so enrolled children can participate regularly. Families and children that are economically challeneged, recieve MFIP Cash Assistance, reiceive SNAP, or are experiencing homelessness,  or are children in the foster care system are eligible. Additionally, Head Start services are available to children with disabilities and other special needs.

Head Start programs deliver services through 1,600 agencies in local communities. Most Head Start programs are run by non-profit organizations, schools, and community action agencies. They provide services to more than a million children every year, in every U.S. state and territory. "Head Start" includes several different program types reflecting the needs of specific populations within the community. These include:

Head Start

Head Start programs promote the school readiness of children ages 3 to 5. Most of these programs are based in centers. In other programs, children and families may receive services from educators and family service staff who regularly make home visits.

Early Head Start (EHS) 

Infants, toddlers, and pregnant women are served through Early Head Start programs. Early Head Start programs are available to the family until the child turns 3 years old and is ready to transition into Head Start or another pre-K program. Services to pregnant mothers and families, including prenatal support and follow-up, are also provided by Early Head Start. Many Early Head Start programs are provided in a child's own home through weekly home visits that support the child's development and family's own goals. Other Early Head Start programs are located in centers which provide part day or full day programming for children. Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships are programs that are dedicated to offering Early Head Start services to eligible families within the childcare system.

American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Head Start

Head Start programs were launched in 34 AIAN communities in the summer of 1965. Today, nearly 41,000 children of AIAN heritage are served in both AIAN and non-tribal programs. Head Start and Early Head Start programs honor the rich cultural heritage of our AIAN children, families, and communities. Based on the needs of local communities, programs offer traditional language and cultural practices to provide high-quality services to young children and their families.  Minnesota has 8 American Indian programs spread across the state serving approximately 1,200 pregnant women and children.

Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS)

Migrant and Seasonal programs provide specific services to children whose families are engaged in agricultural labor. MSHS programs work with both migrant farmworker families, who migrate to a number of geographic locations annually, and with seasonal farmworker families who are permanently settled in their communities but continue to do agricultural work. MSHS programs have served children from birth to age 5 since its inception in 1967 and are currently funded to serve over 30,000 children.  In Minnesota there is one Seasonal Migrant Program that serves multiple sites across the state reaching about 600 pregnant women and children per year.

Current Guidelines

At least 90 percent of families eligible for Head Start or Early Head Start must have incomes that are at or below the Federal poverty guidelines, click here for the most current poverty guidelines.

Throughout the state, the need of families exceeds funded capacity.  Head Start programs develop a set of criteria to help them determine who, of those that apply, will receive services. 

This criteria may include such criterion as a diagnosed disability, homelessness or sheltered living, proximity to entering kindergarten and having received no services, and more. Each program is required to reserve at least 10% of its funded enrollment for children that are diagnosed with a disability.

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