Most Missouri families can't rely on public transit to get their kids to Head Start
In Missouri, just under 25% of its Head Start centers are within a walkable distance from a public transit spot — making the early childhood program less accessible to families without reliable transportation.
Families who take the bus have to walk more than half a mile from the nearest stop to get their child to the YMCA Head Start program in Kansas City’s Columbus Park neighborhood.
A new report from the National Head Start Association and the Civic Mapping Initiative found it’s one of 3,000 centers across the U.S. that are less than a mile from a public transit spot — but just outside walking range for toddlers or someone holding a small child.
Nearly 1 million children across the country are enrolled in Head Start, a federally-funded early childhood education program provided to low-income families at no cost. Some Head Start centers provide transportation, but nearly 800,000 kids have to rely on a caregiver for their commute.
According to a national survey of Head Start centers, lack of transportation is one of the top barriers preventing families from enrolling and keeping their kids in the early childhood program.
Heather Gilliam, family and community engagement coordinator for YMCA Head Start, said that holds true for many Kansas City participants.
“Transportation is a huge barrier for them, so they have to rely on family or friends to get them to our programs,” Gilliam said. “Our families live in communities that aren't pedestrian friendly, and, unfortunately, are not close to public transit.”
To understand the scope of transit issues that families face, NHSA and CMI produced a map measuring the distance between each Head Start center and the nearest public transit stop.
Only 42% of centers nationwide have a transit stop within a quarter of a mile, a distance the report defines as walkable for a toddler. In Missouri, just under 25% of the 335 centers are within a walkable distance.
Gilliam said many bus stops aren’t convenient for their families who have more than one child.
“They may have children that have to hold hands and walk with the families, so it can be a safety issue for them,” Gilliam said. “It's also a long way for them to push a stroller or to walk down the street with multiple kids.”
An additional 19% of centers nationally are more than a quarter mile but less than a mile away from a transit stop. The report says transit agencies could make centers more accessible with inexpensive changes like extending those bus routes.
Abigail Seldin, co-founder of CMI, said her team sees it as a “tremendous” opportunity.
“Moving a bus stop, just a couple of thousand feet, is not expensive for a transit agency,” Seldin said. “It's a small change, but it can make a big difference in the lives and trajectories of families across the country.”
There are 29 centers in Missouri within a mile of a public transit spot, a distance the report said could be shortened with low-cost solutions. The Memphis Area Transit Authority has already used the data to relocate bus stops closer to three Head Start centers within their service area.
Gilliam said their Head Start program was able to provide transportation at one point, but it lost funding.
“It would be great if we had public transportation that would drop our families off within a block or two of our programs,” Gilliam said.
The report from CMI measures the proximity of public transit to centers, but not the accessibility.
Nearly all of the Head Start centers in Kansas City are located within a quarter mile of a public transit stop, but Gilliam said many employees and families who rely on buses are often late because of unreliable scheduling.
“It's also about whether or not it's affordable and safe to ride the bus or to ride the rail,” Seldin said. “It's also about whether the routes and the frequency support an individual rider with where they're trying to go on an efficient timetable.”
Head Start centers run by Kansas City Public Schools see those issues.
Michelle Pendzimas, the school district’s Head Start director, said while most families who live within district boundaries are near a transit stop, she said they aren’t “short, smooth bus lines.”
“When families talk about not wanting to take the bus or considering themselves as not having access to buses, it's because of the time that it takes to either get through all the stops, or to change buses,” Pendzimas said. “When you have little children or you have to be at your job at a certain time, that's a hardship.”
Pendzimas said bus lines grow fewer and farther between as they get farther away from the city core.
Seldin said in states with significant rural populations, there may be too few people to support a transit agency, but more than enough to support a Head Start program. She said Head Start is one of the primary providers of rural child care.
Ideally, Seldin says, their data would show every center either within a quarter mile of a stop without one in its area.
“That show(s) that every Head Start center that is within an area serviced by a transit agency has been prioritized for a stop,” Seldin said. “But also, that rural areas that are beyond the reach of transit agencies have Head Start available.”
Families also face barriers that aren’t directly tied to transportation.
Pendzimas says a lack of affordable housing has led many of the families that KCPS Head Start serves to move out of the area. At YMCA Head Start, Gilliam said an increasing number of families are experiencing homelessness because of rising rents and prices.
“We like to say in Head Start that it's our job to keep them safe. But we have families that have a lot of barriers that, unfortunately, are just big problems for families, and we try our best to help them,” Gilliam said.
Pendzimas said she would like to see more funding for Head Start, but she’s had some success looking for grants serving specific populations — like children with individualized educational plans, refugees and immigrants, and students experiencing homelessness.
Another way to improve families’ ability to get to Head Start centers, Pendzimas said, is to talk directly to families about the specific transportation issues they are facing.
Seldin said a couple of transit agencies around the country have partnered with their local Head Start to learn more about where families live and map their routes to and from centers to consider improving routes and timing.
“That's one of the exciting things about this opportunity is that it can be solved by neighbors working together,” Seldin said.