The federal government is suspending Jacksonville Urban League's management of the city's 24 Head Start centers for 30 days after the agency was cited with dozens of violations over the past two years by Florida's Department of Children and Families.
The federally funded preschool program that provides childcare to about 2,700 children of low-income families is licensed by DCF. Federal officials made the decision to suspend Urban League's management for 30 days centers due to unresolved violations of codes and safety standards.
Urban League has run the program in Jacksonville for 17 years.
According to a letter last week from DCF to Urban League President Richard Danford, over the last two years the Head Start programs in Jacksonville have been cited eight times for using physical discipline in the classroom, nine times for inadequate supervision, 12 times for facilities being in disrepair, and eight times for fences that were broken, had gaps or were otherwise not secure.
In addition, the program has been cited for not having adequate background checks, having toxic substances within reach of children and hazards or debris on outdoor play areas.
In reference to one location -- the Robert F. Kennedy Center -- "I am personally amazed that more aggressive steps have not been taken to secure that facility's playground during school hours," wrote David Abramowitz, DCF's Northeast Florida regional director.
"What you have here was there was just such a pattern of so many disturbing things that we felt we should basically sound the alarm," DCF spokesman John Harrell said. "Over the past few months, the problems began to get more serious. An issue where you have a child left on the bus for several hours without any supervision, any food, and you're talking about a 3-year-old here. And that's unacceptable."
Lajune Lowman is concerned that the program her 5-year-old daughter is enrolled in is under fire.
"It frightens me, makes me worried," Lowman said. "I'm thinking about my baby, like, do I need to get her out of this school?"
The decision to suspend the Urban League came from Head Start's parent office in Washington D.C.
DCF is working with the Community Development Institute, an interim operator of Head Start programs around the country, to assume operations. They anticipate no disruption to services to thousands of low-income children up to the age of 5 served at the Head Start locations in Jacksonville. The Community Development Institution was meeting with current employees Tuesday afternoon and evening at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to provide transition to the new management.
Richard Danford, the president of the Urban League, says his organization's main concern right now is the children and employees. Danford said he agrees that problems needed to be fixed.
"If we're not doing what we're supposed to do, then we need to man up and take responsibility for that," Danford said. "I'm taking responsibility, and we're going to try to clean it up and move on."
He said about 350 of Urban League employees must reapply with CDI to still work in the Head Start program.