Summer is officially here, yet before we know it the new program year will be in full swing. And with that – another round of federal monitoring reviews!

Based on where your program is in its review cycle, you should know if your program is going to have a federal review this year. Take a look at slide 9 of OHS’ The Enhanced AMS 2.0: The Foundation webinar for a graphic timeline of reviews during the 5-year grant cycle. Generally, Focus Area 1 reviews are taking place in year 2, CLASS reviews in years 2-3, and Focus Area 2 reviews in year 3.

By now, you may have received notification from the Office of Head Start (OHS) that you will have a review and informing you of the type of review. Those notifications may still be coming, as last year OHS indicated that notifications would be sent by October 1. Then, 60 days in advance of your program’s review you will be notified of the date of the review. Waiting for that 60 day window to prepare for your review will put undue pressure on your program. We strongly recommend starting now!

Patti Greenstein, Senior Consultant at Foundations for Families, has a breadth of expertise in the early care and education field, including helping Head Start/Early Head Start grantees prepare for federal monitoring reviews. Today, Patti offers her insight into federal monitoring, providing lessons learned and tips to prepare.

What do you think is the most significant difference between the “old” and “new” monitoring systems?

After the new Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) were published OHS knew they would need to create an updated approach to monitoring that reflected the less prescriptive nature of the regulations. The new HSPPS provide grantees with many more opportunities for customizing services to meet the needs of their individual communities, and the monitoring protocol had to adapt to remain effective and provide programs with an opportunity to demonstrate how they are implementing the new standards, tracking their performance and outcomes, and using the data gathered for continuous improvement.

As OHS explained, with the new HSPPS in effect, it would no longer be possible to use a script or a checklist for a federal review. The “checklist mentality” would be extinct. So, before, it was show us and maybe you had a chance to tell something too. Reviewers often looked at data and documentation in isolation and without context. Now, it’s tell – tell your story, tell how you track progress, outcomes and compliance and plan for and ensure continuous improvement – and then show – show the data that supports it, that you are using to do this work every day.  

Here’s an example: In the past, you might have been asked to show your reviewer your program’s Family Partnership Agreements. Now, it’s much more likely that you would be asked how your program develops supportive partnerships with families. And as part of your response, you would share your agreements with the reviewer.

What challenges have you observed in the last year related to programs’ preparedness for federal monitoring, particularly Focus Area 2?

Focus Area 2 is focused on progress, outcomes, and continuous improvement in the context of compliance. Compliance is still critically important, but it no longer stands alone. We’ve heard from some grantees who were caught off guard by this approach, and who felt ill-prepared to talk about the in’s and out’s of their program.

Even when programs are doing exactly what they need to be doing in their program, the challenge is being able to talk about it and explain it in a comprehensive yet concise way and weave the narrative together for the reviewer.

In other cases, timing has been a critical factor. Reviews may take place any time between fall and spring. Some grantees believed they had ample time to prepare – anticipating a spring review – and were surprised to find out their review was scheduled for fall. Other grantees simply didn’t know how to prepare without a traditional checklist to guide their preparation.

What are your tips for how programs can get ready if they anticipate a federal monitoring review this program year? 

The new monitoring approach, and the chance for programs to “tell their story” and show the data that supports it, should be seen as an opportunity for grantees rather than an additional burden. The challenge, however, is to ensure you are well prepared to take advantage of that opportunity in the moment.

First and foremost, begin to think about preparation. Review the Head Start Monitoring Protocols. There are big differences between a Focus Area 1 review and a Focus Area 2 review. Most notable is that Focus Area 1 reviews are conducted virtually. Focus Area 2 reviews are in person, longer, and more in-depth. Become familiar with the type of review your program will be receiving this year.

As you review the monitoring protocol, identify any areas where you think your program needs to do additional work or preparation. Then, make decisions about how to manage that preparation internally or whether there is any need for outside support. Also consider how to prepare as a team, across service areas. All stakeholders – e.g., teachers, Policy Council, Governing Board – are impacted by a federal review and should be included in preparations. Determine what you need to be successful, for example, resources or training.

Whether your program manages monitoring preparation internally or with external support, practice will be a critical component. Practice, practice, and more practice for responses to open-ended questions! Look specifically at the “What We Want to Learn” section of the protocol to understand what reviewers may ask. Reframe this section into questions, and have your staff practice answers, gather documents, and think about how you use data and documentation for program planning. Review the related regulations and ensure you can talk about how all of these pieces fit together. You may even want to consider practicing your responses to questions with someone who is not deeply familiar with your program. This will help to ensure your responses are clear, comprehensive, and to the point.

Lastly, organize your data and documentation. This piece of monitoring preparation might feel the most like monitoring of the past. However, this is just one component of a much more intricate review process. Having your data and documentation ready will allow your team to focus attention on response to questions and will serve as a tool for describing how the program functions and uses data.

Monitoring preparedness isn’t always easy! Leveraging the time leading up to the review is key. Having a clear implementation plan for preparation will help staff and stakeholders feel comfortable with the process. And, you will be setting your program up for a strong review!

Foundations for Families developed an interactive tool called ART (Assessment Readiness Tool) to help facilitate planning and preparation for a Focus Area 2 review. ART helps organize preparation in the context of the review protocol. It provides opportunities for program staff and other stakeholders to practice providing comprehensive, concise, and clear explanations of what they do and how they use their data. If you’re interested to learn more about ART and how we can help you prepare for a monitoring review please feel free to be in touch.

Thank you.

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