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What good is Head Start if you can’t get to it?

Rising kindergarteners at Renaissance West STEAM Academy work on reading skills through the YMCA's Y Readers summer program.
Ann Doss Helms
Rising kindergarteners at Renaissance West STEAM Academy work on reading skills through the YMCA's Y Readers summer program.

This story first appeared as part of WFAE's EQUALibrium newsletter, exploring race and equity in the Charlotte region. Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox first by signing up here.

Head Start is an invaluable program for millions of low-income families, helping their children get care while their parents are at work and providing an early start to education before kindergarten.

But what if those families who can’t afford private day care also can’t afford a car? Only 42% of Head Start centers across the U.S. are located within walking distance of a transit stop, meaning that, for many low-income families, transportation is a major obstacle in accessing a service they’re entitled to.

That’s the conclusion of a new report out this week from Civic Mapping and the National Head Start Association. The groups collaborated to examine all Head Start centers nationwide to see how many are close enough to a transit stop — bus, subway, light rail, streetcar or others — for a toddler to walk. (Their criteria defined that as 0.2 miles, which, if you’ve walked with a toddler and all their school stuff, is pretty realistic.)

In North Carolina, the proportion of Head Start centers near transit stations is lower than the share nationwide — only 33%. A slightly higher share, 36%, of North Carolina Head Start centers have no transit access at all.

Abigail Seldin, CEO of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which supported the research, said Head Start centers that have no transit whatsoever aren’t the focus. They’re largely in rural communities that don’t have transit systems, which means starting transit access to those sites would be a very tall order.

“Not every community, especially those in sparsely populated rural areas, needs or could sustain a transit agency,” the report notes.

Instead, it’s the 32% of Head Start centers that are close to public transit stops but not quite close enough that interest Seldin. Those centers have transit stops within 0.2 and 5 miles, which means, in theory, they could be served with a relatively small investment — perhaps as small as adding another transit stop on an existing, nearby line.

“That's a tremendous set of low-cost opportunities for transit agencies to invest in families and to invest in childcare workers by moving stops perhaps only 2,000 feet,” Seldin said. “It's a critical enabler of economic and social mobility.”

Nationwide, Head Start centers provide service to about 1 million students. They provide transportation to about 100,000 of those — about 10%. The rest generally have to figure out how they’re getting to Head Start on their own. That disconnect — providing an educational service that helps low-income people who might not be able to access it without effective transit — is yet another example of how education and transportation can address poverty when solutions are paired thoughtfully.

You can see all of the Head Start centers in the U.S. on this interactive map. When you zoom in, it quickly becomes apparent that Charlotte actually does pretty well on this measure. All of the city’s Head Start centers — clustered in the lower-income “crescent” neighborhoods north, east and west of uptown — are located near transit stops.

The challenges emerge when you look at smaller cities and towns surrounding Charlotte — Gastonia, Mooresville, Statesville, Fort Mill, Monroe, Kannapolis. That’s where you’ll find Head Start centers that are near public transit stops, but not near enough to be convenient.

These communities offer public transit, but through smaller, bus-based systems with limited routes. Seldin said that as local governments look to build out their transit systems, they should prioritize Head Start centers when looking at where to locate stops.

“It is a way to make a transit dollar count twice,” she said.

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Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.