Here’s how NYC families can get free, quality childcare through a federal Head Start program

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams is calling for more investment in early childhood education to stop New York City’s exodus of working- and middle-class residents, who are leaving because they can’t pay for childcare.

During her State of the City address on Wednesday, Adams said more than 80% of families can’t afford full-time care for their kids. Her comments came the same day as a Siena College poll found that 48% more New Yorkers are spending more money every month on childcare than they were two years ago.

Childcare experts say that although many parents are starting to think about vacation and childcare plans for the summer, now is the best time to enroll their toddlers in Head Start, a decades-old federal program that has long offered relief for those squeezed out of market-rate prices.

The Head Start program began in 1965 and offers children up to the age of 5 and low-income pregnant people free childcare if they meet certain eligibility requirements.

Roughly 34,000 children and pregnant people are in the Head Start program in New York, including 5,800 kids who are enrolled across 95 Head Start programs administered by the city’s Department of Education.

The program aims to provide year-round care meant to prepare children for kindergarten, but also works with parents to better engage with their kids, said Tanya Krien, vice president of early childhood education at the Child Center of NY.

“When they leave our doors and Head Start, when they go to the public school, if they have a concern, how do they address that concern? Who do they go to? What are the important pieces of information to be able to give? We really work very strongly on building advocates in our families,” Krien said.

Here’s what you need to know to apply for the program:

What kind of programming does Head Start offer?

Early Head Start is offered to children from birth up to 3 years old. Meanwhile, Head Start is offered to children 3 to 5 years old. Programs are typically based inside a center or involve an educator visiting a child or a pregnant person’s home to work with a parent and provide services.

Margot Sigmone, deputy director of early childhood programs at Children’s Aid, said center-based programs are usually more popular because many families work.

“A home-based educator goes into the home working collaboratively with the family to support the child’s development,” she said. “The program is so designed that the child’s immediate caregiver has to be home when care is happening.”

Children’s Aid serves about 720 children and pregnant moms through its Head Start programming.

Sigmone said that unlike other child education programs, Head Start operates year-round and doesn’t close for the summer.

“The idea of Head Start is this comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition and family support services that enhances the development of children and support their families,” she said.

Who is eligible?

Families who meet certain low-income thresholds can apply for the program. For example, a two-person household earning $20,440 or less a year and a family of four earning $31,200 or less are both eligible to apply.

But even families earning more than the income limits could be accepted by a program if there is room and if a child meets other selection criteria, such as being homeless, living doubled up with other families, receiving other public benefits, or having a mental health issue or developmental concern.

Those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits —also known as food stamps — or cash assistance through the city’s Human Resources Administration are also likely to qualify.

Krien said it’s important for families to be honest with providers about their child’s needs, because it could help them get into the program. The Child Center offers Head Start programming to 370 children.

“A parent may not want to disclose that their child is not potty trained yet, but they’re really struggling because developmentally the child is not ready to be potty trained,” she said. “They may see that as a reason to be excluded, whereas we look at that as more of a reason to come to school because there’s a development that we need to work on.”

Does it cost anything?

No, the program is free for families who qualify.

What about a family’s immigration status?

Head Start providers are not allowed to inquire about a family’s immigration status or ask for proof of citizenship or U.S. residency, according to program rules.

Krien said that eliminates any barrier for families who may be hesitant to apply.

How do you apply?

Parents can apply through the city education department’s MySchools website, where they will be referred to providers. Parents can also apply directly with providers online, in person, or, in some cases, by walking into a center that offers Head Start.

What do you need to apply?

Applicants may be asked to provide documents proving their eligibility. That can include tax documents, pay stubs, a letter from their employer, or a self-declared statement verifying their earnings or employment.

Other documents could also include public benefits information or foster care reimbursements.

When’s the best time to apply?


“You have to have the mindset and know that you need to apply in February and not be thinking about childcare in July, because you already kind of missed an opportunity, especially if it’s in a community that has more need than the number of slots,” she said.

Pregnant people can also apply and while some programs have waitlists, others have available slots and vacancies. Sigmone said their home-based slots tend to fill up less quickly than seats inside physical locations.

Where are the Head Start programs?

Some programs are located inside school facilities, others inside NYCHA buildings or can be stand-alone centers. A list of programs is available on the city school’s website here, a federal search site or by calling 311.

What other affordable childcare options are available if you’re ineligible for Head Start?

Families can enroll in the city’s 3-K program for 3-year-olds or a pre-K program for 4-year-olds. They can also apply for a city childcare voucher for children from six weeks to 13 years old. Income-based vouchers can cover all or part of the costs of care for families who are homeless or reliant on cash assistance.

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