Orange County Head Start program struggles to enroll students

Orange County is working to recruit 500 children to its early childhood Head Start program before school starts in a few weeks.

Orange County Head Start Director Sonya Hill said normally in late July comprehensive childhood program for low-income students has reached its 1,500 student capacity and has a waiting list.

But Hill said the coronavirus pandemic hindered their recruitment efforts this year and 11 Head Start sites still have more than 50 percent enrollment space available. 

"We weren’t able to do our traditional recruiting, which is going out to the communities and where families need Head Start the most; knocking on doors, setting up at the local grocery stores."

She said during the beginning of the pandemic several early childhood providers temporarily closed and some parents may not realize Head Start reopened. 

"If you were not already a part of the program you didn’t realize that in September of 2020 we opened back up for hybrid concept."

Head Start is now recruiting students for face-to-face learning for the 2021-2022 school year. Each location is equipped with sanitizing machines, spraying/cleaning machines, disinfecting kits, and mask and face shields for both students and teachers.

Head Start is the largest early childhood education service provider in Central Florida with 22 locations conveniently located throughout Orange County. Orange County Head Start is a full-day/full-year program, operating on the same school calendar as Orange County Public Schools. 

Families must live in Orange County and be at or below a certain income level for their children to qualify for the program.

Mom Aquila Drayton enrolled her students in the Pine Hills Head Start location last year and said she has already noticed a difference in her two young children. 

"I can tell a huge difference in their vocabulary for one. For them to be able to pick up a book and recognize certain words. The program is so well equipped that they were able to meet [my daughter’s] needs and build her confidence and work with her well."

Drayton said the program encourages parent and child engagement and helps families with wraparound services, including connecting them with housing, employment and adult education and trade programs.

"I was able to become a certified medical assistant since 2019… I was able to become gainfully employed with plans to continue my education in nursing. This was all achieved since having my children in the Orange County Head Start program."

"Our goal is to help the family become self-sufficient and to not rely on any programs that are provided by the government," Hill said.

While she is concerned about the low enrollment numbers, Hill said she is not worried and her team is now able to beef up recruitment efforts. "Once parents know that we’re open, that we’re safe. They’ll be more apt to coming and doing what needs to be done." The following Head Start locations have more than 50-percent enrollment space available:

  • Bithlo Head Start
  • Dover Shores Elementary
  • East Orange Head Start
  • Englewood Elementary Head Start
  • Hal P. Marston Head Start
  • Lila Mitchell Head Start
  • Millennia Elementary Head Start
  • Pine Hills Head Start
  • Taft Head Start
  • Washington Shores Elementary Head Start
  • West Oaks Elementary Head Start

For a complete list, click HERE.