Head Start staff await decisions on their future
Federal contractor tells parents the program will continue with as little disruption as possible
With a sense of unease and trepidation, Frederick County Head Start employees continued their work this week as they await a federal government contractor to finalize plans for the future of the program.
The deadline for the federal contractor to finish the plan is today, so it can hold a job fair on Friday and Saturday for staff members whose jobs could be eliminated after March 1, when it loses $2.3 million in county funding.
"Everyone here at Head Start is doing their job," said Pat Rosensteel, director of Head Start on Wednesday. "But emotionally, it's been hard."
As a result of losing nearly half of the funding for the program, representatives from Community Development Institute of Denver will take over the interim management of Head Start on March 1, and are working to determine the least-intrusive way to restructure the program.
Head Start is mandated by the federal government to serve a specific number of students (which until June 1 is 282, a number that will drop to 262 on June 2), which means that the program could have to undergo a significant transformation and potentially have to reduce staffing and services.
"They have been hard at work with that, and they are considering all the options," Rosensteel said. "But it's all up in the air right now. It's kind of in a state of limbo."
Representatives from Community Development Institute did not return calls for comment by The Gazette press deadline Wednesday. But at a parent meeting on Feb. 10 they attempted to assure parents that the program will continue with as little disruption as possible.
"Our goal is that they won't be out of school a single day," said Mark Elliott, a program support specialist with Community Development Institute. "Right now, we're hopeful there won't be any delays and any days without Head Start children."
But for parents, many of whom could not speak English, reassurances from Elliott were not enough. Even though parents received a letter from the county explaining the commissioners' decision, they were still confused and angry.
"Our children are our future," said Daima Lewis of Frederick, a parent of a 4-year old son in Head Start.
Lewis also blamed parents for not voting for other commissioner candidates in November, like she said she did. "This is why we're supposed to vote," she said. "I really hope everybody cast a ballot. If everybody voted, this would not have happened."
Henry D. Ramos of Frederick, a Head Start volunteer and parent of a 6-year-old son who recently graduated from the program, spoke for the parents who could not speak English and were unable to express their concerns.
"These people are about to lose a very good program in the middle of the [school] year," Ramos said. "I understand [Elliott is] not the bad guy, but these folks need to know what your commitment is to our families. What is your commitment to our families? They have a right to know."
Elliott said repeatedly that the goal is to keep Head Start services until a new organization takes over.
"We recognize this is an emotional thing, and there are a lot of concerns," he said. "Our goal is to make sure there is no disruption of services. We're in the process of working through the transition and we're hopeful there won't be any delay in services. We're doing everything we can."
Commissioners on Feb. 8 voted 4-1 to pull $2.3 million in county funding from the Head Start program as of March 1.
Commissioners' President Blaine R. Young (R) said Tuesday that county staff recommended the March 1 cutoff instead of waiting until the end of the school year.
"It's what the county manager, [Head Start] division directors and HR [human resources] director decided would be the best transition time," he said.
Young has also pledged that in early March he will present a balanced operating budget for fiscal 2012. The Head Start funding was needed to put toward a $12 million projected deficit for the county's proposed $440 million fiscal 2012 budget.
"We are looking at balancing the budget," Young said. "There is going to be an impact."
Commissioner David P. Gray (R) was the lone vote against the move, arguing that his colleagues were making a rash decision.
But Gray's colleagues, Young and commissioners Billy Shreve (R), Kirby Delauter (R) and C. Paul Smith (R) said they need the county's share of the money to put toward the deficit.
It costs $4.4 million to run Head Start in Frederick County. The county's portion is $2.3 million.
Another $2.1 million comes from the federal government.
Head Start is designed to serve children ages 3 and 4 in families that fall below the federal poverty line: $22,050 in salary for a family of four. The program employs about 80 staff members, serves 282 students annually throughout the county and has existed for 39 years.
Elliott told parents that his company has the experience to run Head Start, and will do so for "as long as it takes to find a permanent [subcontractor]," he said.
Elliott told parents that over the last 10 years, Community Development Institute has worked with Head Start programs in 130 communities in 40 states.
But he also warned parents that without the county funding, he is unsure if all the services Head Start provides will be available when it takes over.
"We're still trying to gather information," he said. "We know there will be a lot of questions. We're still trying to figure things out. The money we have to run the program is the federal grant. We're still looking at the budget and at ways we can continue the program, realizing there may be some changes on how we structure the program."
Elliott said the company will host a job fair on Friday and Saturday for Head Start teachers only, and it is their goal to hire as many as possible.
But it is unclear if the program will be able to maintain its staffing ratio or the level of education required from staff.
Head Start employs 80 staff members, which includes about 50 teachers and 30 support staff. That means three staff members per classroom of 20 students. A Head Start lead teacher now is expected to have a bachelor's degree and a teacher's assistant should have an associate's degree, Rosensteel said. The program also has classroom aides, who hold at least a high school diploma.
Meanwhile, Frederick County Public Schools officials will also follow closely and changes for the Head Start program.
The school system does not provide many programs that could serve families as Head Start does now, said Shari Ostrow Scher, the school system's early childhood education specialist.
Unlike Head Start, which offers childcare for three and a half hours, pre-kindergarten services are only available as some schools and last for about two hours, Scher said.
The specialized Judy Centers serve a similar group of students as Head Start, but they are only available at three schools Lincoln, Hillcrest and Waverley elementary schools.
While Head Start is not directly affiliated with the school system, over the years it has proven to help better prepare students to enter school. "The program in Frederick County has been very beneficial for students," she said.
According to a study by the Maryland State Department in Education, interventions such as Head Start, pre-K and Judy Centers help close the school readiness gaps for English Language Learners, special needs students, and children from low-income households.
The study found that in 2009-10, 83 percent of children who attended Head Start programs were ready to start school.
"With less money for Head Start, we don't know what is going to happen," Scher said. "Perhaps some children will come to us needing more interventions. We just don't know yet. We are in a wait and see mode."