When robust data collection is part of community assessment there is great potential for impact on program planning and implementation. Community assessment is one of the key inputs into a program’s continuous improvement! Used effectively, community assessment can help programs operate more efficiently, with enhanced partnerships, and establish program designs that are responsive to the greatest needs of children and families.
There are many opportunities for impact from community assessment. Below, we present five high impact strategies for using community assessment data to improve Head Start/Early Head Start programs.
- Address under enrollment challenges
Under enrollment is a growing challenge in Head Start and Early Head Start programs. The reasons are likely varied – declining populations of young children, families transitioning out of poverty, and changing access to other early learning programs to name a few. Through community assessment you will be able to answer questions such as, for which age group is there unmet need? Is there a greater need for services – or certain program types – in some parts of the service area than others? Are there special populations that could be reached more effectively through new partnerships? Carefully reviewing data about the eligible population, families’ needs, and access to existing services should give you insight into why your program might be experiencing challenges with enrollment. Then, you can use data as a tool to plan new strategies to reach full enrollment.
- Understand the growth of state-funded pre-kindergarten
The availability of and access to state-funded pre-kindergarten differs from state to state and within states. Some states have continued to invest in state-funded pre-kindergarten in recent years, growing the numbers of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled. This has presented challenges for some Head Start programs that have traditionally served many 4-year-olds. You can use community assessment to look at public pre-kindergarten enrollment trends in your service area and understand why families might choose to enroll. Even with the growth of public pre-k there will still be a need for comprehensive Head Start services. Consider how you might strengthen communication with community providers and families about how Head Start is different so that the families that would benefit from Head Start can enroll in Head Start. This is also an opportunity to look at the age groups your program serves. Consider, are there shifts in your program design (e.g., serving more 3-year-olds) that could help to ensure continued full enrollment in light of an increasing availability of state-funded pre-kindergarten?
- Leverage data as part of the feedback loop to inform TA plans
When possible, we recommend including data from a survey of staff as part of your program’s community assessment. Asking questions about what staff are observing related to families’ needs, as well as what their own professional needs are, provides a valuable voice to the community assessment. Comparing what you learn from your program’s community assessment to the program’s training and technical assistance plan can also help you to refine TA plans to benefit staff. Consider the content of training (is training equipping staff to understand the challenges faced by families?) and type of support provided (do mechanisms for staff advancement align with staff needs?). Community assessment data can be part of a continuous feedback loop to strengthen TA plans and support staff.
- Document a need for funding
To successfully be awarded competitive grant funding it is necessary to make a strong case for the need for funding. We’ve been seeing more and more competition for grant funding (for example, Early Head Start Expansion and Early Head Start – Child Care Partnership). We recommend the first resource you reach for to inform a grant proposal is your community assessment. It will be your source of data on the need for services, it will be used to justify your proposed program design, and it will be used to illustrate your deep understanding of children and families’ needs. We recommend investing time to conduct a thorough community assessment so that your program has a strong foundation to apply for future funding.
- Refine program design
As we’ve touched upon throughout the points above, one of the highest impact areas for community assessment is to use it to refine your program design. For your program to evolve and meet the needs of children and families over time, it is necessary to understand needs and be aware of trends. We’ve learned from many of you that using community assessment to make program changes – big or small – can have profound impacts on the community, staff, children, and families.
Our team at Foundations for Families thoroughly enjoys working with grantees to conduct community assessments. The diverse skill set and expertise of our consultants allows us to conduct community assessments with an equity lens, adding a layer of analysis the report. If your program is interested to explore how we could support your community assessment efforts please be in touch.