Head Start won't return to Jacksonville Urban League

Federal government terminates contract suspended in April

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In April, the federal government suspended Jacksonville Urban League's contract to run the area Head Start centers over heath and safety violations.  On Wednesday, Health and Human Services' Office of Head Start announced that contract was terminated.

During a review of Jacksonville's Head Start locations in the spring of 2013, the government found nine health, safety and environmental violations and suspended the Urban League's grant until these and other deficiencies, including child supervision incidents, could be rectified.

"The health and safety of our children and families is always our No. 1 priority," said Office of Head Star Director Yvette Sanchez Fuentes. "There was never a question of whether Head Start would continue in Jacksonville. It's always been about who can provide the highest quality of services to the children and families."

Along with announcing the termination, Health and Human Service's Office of Head Start said its classrooms would open for the school year on Sept. 3 run by interim manager Community Development Institute.

Some parents were concerned when the early learning centers did not open this week to coincide with the opening of public schools. CDI officials said it never planned to open the classes before Labor Day.

Seven of the local centers will not be reopening because of the many different problems.

"Some of the wooden, exposed structures, as you can see, they are deteriorating and pose a splinting risk for kids," said Shawna Pinckney, of the National Office of Head Start. "The play structures certainly aren't safe for the children to be on."

The local chapter of the Urban League ran Jacksonville's Head Start program for 17 years.

"The fact that we had to take this action is very serious," Pinckney said.

Enrollment is also down because of sequestration and federal cuts. This year, 1,716 kids are signed up. Last year there were more -- about 2,020.

"We feel it's unfortunate, we don't want any parent to have miscommunication, and that's why we're here in the community, to speak directly to families and make sure they have all the latest information about what they can expect for their children," Pinckney said.

Urban League President Richard Danford said he's still learning about what the termination means. The group's legal team will look over the termination and decide what to do and what's best for the kids.

The Urban League does have the opportunity to reapply in the future, so it's not disqualified forever.

HHS is accepting proposals through Oct. 22 for a permanent provider to run the Head Start and Early Head Start centers in Duval County. Interested organizations can get information about applying for the grant at the HHS website.