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Facing a waiting list of more than 800 children, county and school officials are looking for ways to expand access to the early education and health services program Head Start.

Currently local Head Start programs enroll 1,864 children of low-income parents. Among those enrolled are 200 children under the age of three, and 622 are three to five years old.

“There are limited slots for children and that is causing the waitlist. Ours is unusually long,” said Maura Burke, Fairfax County Public School’s coordinator for Early Childhood Curriculum and Grant Management.

The Head Start program is a federal grants initiative started under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Localities apply for and receive grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Grants are used to fund comprehensive early development programs and include education, health, nutrition and parenting elements.

“It’s a federal program, but it’s a comprehensive program. There are obviously things that happen in the classroom for children, but there are also things that happen outside of the classroom to help the family,” Burke said of the family service element of the program. Because of these elements, Head Start locally is a joint partnership between Fairfax County and Fairfax County Public Schools.

“We’re investing in young children early so that when they enter kindergarten, they are ready,” said Anne-Marie Twohie, director of the Office for Children, a division of the Department of Family Services.

Twohie and Burke will be working with a team of county and school system stakeholders on solutions to the 800-child waitlist. Recommendations are planned to be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors by March.

“We have convened a work group in looking at possible solutions, looking at ways to cut costs,” Twohie said, adding that the group includes members like school readiness personnel, library staff, leaders from the county’s Child Care Assistance and Referral program, and area principals.

“What the board and the School Board asked to look at is how to serve the children not currently being served elsewhere or think of creative solutions,” she said. The work group has already begun looking for outside solutions, including reaching out to area pre-school programs for scholarship opportunities.

In Fairfax County, Head Start is a $27 million program, or roughly $14,500 per child. Currently, Head Start programs are located in 59 elementary schools and three secondary and high schools [West Potomac and Chantilly High School and Robinson Secondary], which have partnership programs on child development, a course that teaches caretaker skills. Areas of the county with the highest demand for Head Start services are Falls Church, Annandale, Baileys Crossroads, and Reston, program coordinators said.

“The research is pretty clear on the benefits of starting young with children, particularly with children living in poverty,” Burke said. “… Children who are in quality programs… are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to contribute to society, be homeowners, get married, and less likely to be incarcerated.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com