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Head Start programs could face disruptions in funding, operations

01.10.2012 | Los Angeles Times | Carla Rivera

At a Pomona preschool recently, children played with a large wooden
train set, built a fort with colorful cardboard blocks and listened
attentively as their teacher discussed ways to be safe in school and
outdoors.

It was a typical day, but the program at Harrison Elementary School and
many others like it are facing atypical times, because the agency that
manages these Head Start contracts may lose its $220-million federal
grant.

The Los Angeles County Office of
Education was included among more than 130 agencies around the country
that did not meet federal performance standards and will now have to
compete with other potential providers to receive funding. Head Start is
a nearly 50-year-old preschool program for low-income families; about 1
million children are enrolled.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
which oversees the Head Start program, enacted reforms in December to
address concerns about quality and accountability, among other things.
They include a provision that, for the first time, requires
low-performing agencies to compete for funding. Previously, funding for
grantees was automatic.

The changes to the program took on a new urgency after a federal study
in 2010 found that children in Head Start improve their language and
literacy skills but that many of the gains disappear by the end of first
grade.

Though many providers applaud the intent of the reforms, they also fear potential disruptions in funding and operations.

For example, plans by the Pomona Unified School District to open
programs in San Bernardino County in conjunction with the Los Angeles
County Office of Education could be threatened, officials said.

“If [the] Los Angeles County office doesn’t get funded, where are we?” asked Ofelia Lariviere, director of the child development
program in Pomona Unified, which includes Harrison Elementary. “We want
them to get it, and we are going to do our best to help them.”

The L.A. County Office of Education is the largest Head Start agency in
the country, overseeing contracts with 25 Head Start providers that
serve 23,000 preschoolers, toddlers and infants. The agency was put on
notice in 2010 when a federal review found that seven providers did not
maintain adequate record keeping and that staff members at an eighth
failed to sign some required forms.

New procedures were put in place, the federal government approved them
and the case was closed in August. But because the new Head Start rules
are retroactive to June 2009, the Los Angeles office is still required
to reapply for its grant.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education “still feels confident in its
ability to re-compete,” said the county’s interim Head Start director,
Keesha Woods. “We have a long-standing record of quality services and
take our jobs very seriously as stewards of public dollars working with
less-advantaged children.”

But Woods noted that parts of the new regulations are a challenge for large agencies, including hers.

“You can have several programs doing a superb job and one with
challenges,” she said. “As the grantee with monitoring responsibility
and contract oversight, we should be able to do what is necessary
without the entire grant being put at risk.”

Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Assn., and
other early education officials said they are worried that forcing
so-called super grantees, including Los Angeles County and New York
City, to reapply for funding appears to be part of a federal attempt to
break up the larger agencies.

Federal authorities insist there is no bias in favor of smaller grant holders.

“What we’re really looking for is to increase the quality of Head Start
services that kids in these areas are receiving, and this is an
opportunity for other organizations to say, ‘I can do this and I can do
this better,'” said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the federal
Office of Head Start.

Many parents, meanwhile, are largely unaware of the potential changes in
Los Angeles. Helda Munoz, whose 4-year-old twins attend the Head Start
program at Harrison Elementary, said she appreciates the quality of the
program and the skills her children are learning.

“They are preparing them well,” Munoz said.

For Los Angeles Head Start providers, state budget woes are adding an
extra dimension of anxiety. Last year, California’s early childhood
programs, including state preschool, suffered more than $260 million in
cuts. Gov. Jerry Brown‘s
2012-13 budget proposal released Thursday calls for a $500-million cut
to child care and preschool programs, as well as the elimination of
$224 million in funding for transitional kindergarten for 4-year olds
that was to begin next fall. About 125,000 children could be affected.

Laurel Parker, director of the Head Start and state preschool program
for the Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District, last year cut
$250,000 from the $1.3-million program, laid off three staff members and
eliminated a classroom, requiring 24 families to find new services.

The Childcare Resource Center, a nonprofit agency in Chatsworth that
serves more than 15,000 children in Head Start and state preschool
programs, lost 20% of its operating budget — $25 million — in the last
two years. The agency closed more than 140 centers and laid off 70
employees, although some have been rehired.

“People will say we need to support working families,” said Michael
Olenick, president and chief operating officer of the center. “And
especially at the low end of the scale people are holding on by a
thread, but there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy right now.”

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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