Children attend final classes at Head Start

Senator says alternative sites at least being looked at

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Friday was the last day of class for more than 1,000 students in Jacksonville's Head Start program. The group that runs the program sent a note to parents saying classes would end weeks earlier than planned.

Some community members were outraged by the decision. Parents, community leaders, pastors and even Jacksonville's City Council members have stepped up to say this should not happen.

In a statement released by Sen. Audrey Gibson around midday Friday, she said that after three days of talks and emails between her office and several other departments, including the national Head Start director and Rep. Corrine Brown, "there has been agreement reached to have CDI at least look at alternative sites put together by a coalition of clergy and others to determine if those sites can meet the needs of the 1,500 children who would be displaced after today. While there are no guarantees at this hour, I am hopeful for a beneficial resolution."

"The mechanics are in place, inspectors are in place," Gibson said. "They could have licenses by the end of the day, and they committed to visiting the sites today."

Between 1,400 to 2,000 students could be affected by this, and many of their parents are still trying to deal with the situation.

"This program was good. My daughter was excited about going to school," said parent Leilani Jennings. "Her teacher is really good. She's been learning a lot. I really don't know what I'm going to do."

Gibson said CDI has handled the situation poorly.

"My thing is, the alternatives are there," she said. "Rather than displacing children, there are multiple places that meet the standards of the Head Start program they should have looked into. So since they didn't, we did."

It's still hard for Nathaniel Borden's 4-year-old to understand why her older sister won't be going to her Head Start classes after Friday. Borden got a letter from Head Start stating her classes will end May 17th instead of June 7th.

"She's wondering why my 5-year-old is able to stay and go to school and she's not able to go to school, being that she just started in January. She was saddened," said Borden.

The Community Development Institute took over managing the Jacksonville Head Start program in April after the the Urban League's contract to run the program was suspended following a series of code and safety violations.

CDI told parents in the letter that it determined some aspects of the Head Start program did not ensure children's safety, so to correct the matter, additional staff needed intensive training.

Within the last two years, Head Starts been cited eight times for using physical discipline in the classroom, nine times for inadequate supervision, 12 times for being in poor repair, and eight times for fences that were not secure.

Still, community leaders and parents are questioning the closure.

"We're suspect of the process that they have taken. We're suspect that they would not provide the information," said Pastor R.L. Gundy, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "We're suspect of the secrecy, even up all the way to the Department of Health and Human Services that says, 'What are you not wanting to reveal? Are you scared that the parents are going to come back and charge you with failing to provide a proper education for those children?' So there's a lot of things involved here."

For the next three weeks, Borden and other parents will have to find other arrangements for their children, causing an unexpected expense.

"So now come next week next, while my other daughter is still in school, we are going to have to find someone to watch our 4-year-old while we both go to work or one of us is going to have to take off from work," said Borden.

Gundy said he's considering filing an injunction on behalf of 200 parents. He said he's learned that eight of the 24 Head Start locations have safety issues, and he wonders why the entire program has to close early.

"Have the students' rights for an equal opportunity education been violated?" Gundy said. "That's a concern now. That becomes a legal issue from a federal standpoint that says kids have a right to an education. Have you violated that?"

Department of Children and Families spokesman John Harrell said the company that took over the Head Start program has the right to make those cuts.

As for the alternative plan in the works:

"Churches can operate childcare facilities under Florida law based on a religious exempt basis," Harrell said. "It means they would mean they don't have to be licensed or inspected by DCF, but they will still need to be licensed by agencies that deal with religious exempt facilities."

Harrell said that for churches to provide services for kids, they would have to become accredited and perform background checks for all of their volunteers and employees.

"We would be glad to provide them with any information they need to help in the process," Harrell said. "Churches can operate childcare facilities."

If you can't afford an alternative school or childcare, and are looking for guidance to more affordable options, contact the Early Learning Coalition at 904-208-2044.

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