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Increasing Access to Head Start Through Text Messages

A new study by Alica Gerry, Lindsay Bell Weixler, Jon Valant, Daphna Bassok, and Justin B. Doromal finds a low-cost way to help more low-income families access Head Start programs.

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Increasing Access to Head Start Through Text Messages

by Alica Gerry, Lindsay Bell Weixler, Jon Valant, Daphna Bassok, Justin B. Doromal

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Eli­gi­bil­i­ty for pub­licly fund­ed ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion (ECE) pro­grams in the Unit­ed States is often lim­it­ed by fam­i­ly income. Though the use of income thresh­olds is impor­tant for tar­get­ing lim­it­ed resources to those most in need, the pro­cess­ing for ver­i­fy­ing income is some­times com­plex and bur­den­some for fam­i­lies with lim­it­ed means. In 2016, for exam­ple, one quar­ter of fam­i­lies apply­ing for a spot in a pub­lic ear­ly child­hood pro­gram through New Orleans’ cen­tral­ized enroll­ment sys­tem, OneApp, did not com­plete this ver­i­fi­ca­tion step. To address the chal­lenges asso­ci­at­ed with eli­gi­bil­i­ty ver­i­fi­ca­tion, we part­nered with NOLA Pub­lic Schools to con­duct a series of stud­ies about the poten­tial of week­ly text mes­sages to help fam­i­lies com­plete the process. Find­ings from the first of our two text mes­sag­ing projects are detailed in a pre­vi­ous­ly released ERA-New Orleans brief. In this fol­low-up study, we revised the text mes­sage pro­gram to be more effec­tive for Head Start fam­i­lies. Par­ents who applied for Head Start in the 2019 – 20 OneApp were ran­dom­ly assigned to receive for­mal text mes­sage reminders, per­son­al­ized text mes­sage reminders, or no reminders. Our main find­ings from this study are sum­ma­rized below: Head Start appli­cants who received text reminders, either for­mal or per­son­al­ized, ver­i­fied eli­gi­bil­i­ty at sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er rates (58.2% and 57.1%, respec­tive­ly) than par­ents who did not receive texts (48.6%). Two-thirds of Head Start appli­cants who received per­son­al­ized text mes­sages respond­ed (67.4%), indi­cat­ing a desire to engage with NOLA Pub­lic Schools (NOLA-PS) staff for help. * Even with text mes­sage reminders, Head Start appli­cants still ver­i­fied at sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er rates than appli­cants to school-based pre‑K pro­grams. Six­ty-eight per­cent of school-based pre‑K appli­cants receiv­ing for­mal text reminders ulti­mate­ly ver­i­fied, com­pared with only 58% of Head Start appli­cants receiv­ing those same com­mu­ni­ca­tions. This study pro­vides com­pelling evi­dence that sim­ple, low-cost text sup­ports, paired with clear, acces­si­ble resources, can help fam­i­lies nav­i­gate the ear­ly child­hood enroll­ment process and increase their like­li­hood of suc­cess­ful­ly enrolling their child in their desired seat.

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