Underenrollment is a longstanding issue faced by many Head Start/Early Head Start programs. It continues to present a major challenge for programs and is now coupled with an unprecedented child care staffing crisis. 2023 is the first year the Full Enrollment Initiative is being implemented since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an estimated 225 grant recipients just received letters designating their program as chronically underenrolled.

At the 2023 National Head Start Association (NHSA) Winter Leadership Institute, the Office of Head Start (OHS) shared that the initial 225 grant recipients to receive letters would include those who are 50-60% underenrolled. An additional 1,200 underenrollment letters are expected to be sent to programs over the course of the year. This means that many programs are now engaging in action planning to reduce or eliminate underenrollment or will be soon.

As described in the Full Enrollment Initiative PI, the 12-month period for determining chronic underenrollment starts 10 calendar days from the date a program is sent an underenrollment letter. Grantees that are able to achieve and maintain 97 percent funded enrollment for six consecutive months following the 12-month period will have successfully completed their underenrollent plan. Programs that do not achieve the 97 percent threshold may be subject to “recapturing, withholding, or reducing the annual funding and funded enrollment.”

A strategic response to underenrollment and an action plan that focuses on risk mitigation will help programs to demonstrate their efforts and work toward full enrollment. The goal will be to reduce or eliminate the underenrollment problem by showing activities completed prior to receiving the underenrollment letter and what will be completed moving forward.

To get started, we recommend that programs document efforts already implemented to address underenrollment. This will help to show progress made and current areas of focus. For example, if your program has offered incentives or increased salaries to improve staff recruitment and retention, capture this as actions your program has taken and build from there. Consider other efforts that will be implemented going forward to retain staff, like wellness initiatives and mental health supports.

While staffing issues will certainly be a focus for many programs, it’s important to also plan for and document efforts related to ERSEA. Continuing to recruit and maintain a waiting list of eligible children so that vacancies can be filled will help to show that the program is ready to serve more children. Maintain a “clean” waiting list by contacting families and checking their eligibility status. Continue ERSEA actions, despite staffing challenges, as an integral part of a comprehensive underenrollent action plan.

Programs should track everything they have done, are doing, and will do to address underenrollment. Simultaneously, programs should have up-to-date data about community needs to ensure their plans are responsive to the current and changing needs in their community. This way, if a program hasn’t achieved 97% enrollment by the end of the 12-month action planning period, there will be program and community data to show strengths and barriers impacting enrollment. For some programs, it’s possible that action planning will result in a change of scope (e.g., slot reduction or conversion to increase staff salaries). This will be an easier outcome to negotiate if the program has data to show what could reasonably be accomplished to increase enrollment.

Foundations for Families can work with your team to develop a strategy, action plan, and timetable for reducing or eliminating underenrollment and mitigating the risk of losing funding. Additional support could include evaluating staffing challenges and ERSEA practices, updating data sources needed for decision-making (e.g., Community Assessment; Wage Comparability Study), assessing your overall program design, and assisting with the development of a Change in Scope Request. If your program is in need of assistance, please be in touch. We would be glad to learn more about your program.

Thank you.

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