New York City’s largest Head Start provider freezes new enrollments

Some Head Start and Early Head Start providers in New York City have been told to stop enrolling new students in preschool slots funded through the federal program, sending an untold number of low-income families potentially scrambling to find care elsewhere.

The freeze, which went into effect April 8, is the first tangible disruption resulting from an ambitious overhaul of early childhood services in the city. The issue affects programs that receive funding through the city’s Administration For Children’s Services, the largest Head Start grantee in the city serving about 11,000 children.

“It’s having a real adverse impact on children and families,” said David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement, which runs preschools in East Harlem. “We had families in the pipeline, ready to enroll their children.”

A spokeswoman for ACS stressed that families would still be served by other childcare programs, and Head Start slots that are not contracted through the city agency are still open for enrollment. Still, the freeze is likely to cause a headache for families who may have few local options, struggle to afford travel, or had hoped to enroll in a particular school.

Enrollment is expected to open again in July, when a new federal grants kick in.

“We’ll continue to communicate with providers and families and ensure we are meeting their needs,” City Hall spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie wrote in an email.

Federal officials called for the freeze as the city moves to transfer its Head Start grants from their current home in ACS over to the education department. The shift is part of a larger plan for early childhood education services in New York City, aimed at streamlining an often patchy network of care and recognizing that learning begins at birth.

But the enrollment snafu shows how bumpy the road to change might be.

“Everybody’s scared,” said Andre Lake, president of the Head Start Sponsoring Board Council, which represents providers.

As part of the transition, the education department had to compete alongside other organizations for Head Start grants that had previously been awarded to ACS. Lake said those seats are now expected to get shuffled among more grantees, meaning the education department may see a reduction in the number of slots that had been awarded to the city in the past — which explains the need for an enrollment freeze.

In the meantime, providers are left with slots that could be filled by waiting families.

“It’s a big problem because basically this means that providers will have empty seats and families who need Head Start just won’t be able to enroll in them,” said Gregory Brender,  co-director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, a federation of settlement houses that pushes for affordable child care.

Providers received an email from ACS on April 8 ordering them to stop enrolling children in Head Start programs that same day. They were also told to leave seats vacant if any child withdrew from their centers from that date through June 30, when the current grant expires. 

Lapeyrolerie, the City Hall spokeswoman, said it’s “standard procedure” for programs not to increase enrollment while grants are winding down.

In a follow-up letter sent last week by the Office of Head Start, regional Program Manager Carolyn Baker sent providers a list of hundreds of other grantees to direct families towards.  

“Change and transitions are never easy. We understand this part of the transition process may impact children and families seeking enrollment in your programs,” she wrote. “We are working to make sure that everyone impacted receives accurate information so that they can make informed decisions.”