Leaders speak out about Head Start's early closure

Parents stuck figuring out where to send students

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Pastors and community leaders in Jacksonville said they are outraged at the decision to end Head Start classes three weeks ahead of schedule.

Those from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held a news conference Wednesday morning outside of Head Start's main office on Union Street.

They demanded documents showing the "safety concerns" Head Start's new owner, Community Development Institute, has cited as the reason to close three weeks early.

Parents say they received short notice about the decision to close this Friday. Some are scrambling to find child care at the last minute.

One mother said she's a student who works part time and would have to take her child to class with her. Another woman who's a caregiver said she'd have to take her child to work with her.

"I will have to find other childcare placement for my (4-year-old) daughter or she will have to come to work with me because I take care of senior citizens and disabled individuals for a living," said LaShana Porter. "so she will have to come with me."

Families around the area got a note in early May from the CDI saying classes would end Friday.

The community leaders want to let people know how much this will impact families. This change is estimated to affect nearly 1,500 Head Start students -- those ages 3 and older -- at 24 locations. Voluntary Pre-K students are not affected.

Leaders and parents believe this was just too short of notice. Parents of those students are stuck trying to figure out where to send their students.

"Well, I wish we would have had more notice," said Nathaniel Bordan, father of two children.

That's Borden's main complaint with the letter he got from Head Start stating classes will end for his daughter on May 17 instead of June 7.

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

It's an unexpected expense for the Bordens and thousands of other families. The Community Development Institute took over managing the Jacksonville Urban League's Head Start program in April after the organization's leadership was suspended due to unresolved code violations and safety standards.

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. Pastor Brodes Perry said the move is concerning, and that's why he spearheaded Wednesday's news conference.

"Unfortunately with the society that we live in, the fear is unknown. We don't know what could happen," Perry said. "Kids could be harmed as far as safety is concerned. There are predators out there if they don't have anywhere to go to continue their education and learning."

CDI said in its letter to parents, "We are truly sorry for any disruption this may cause your family, but strongly believe that it is necessary to ensure the safety of your children."

At the news conference, community leaders asked why CDI can't fix the safety concerns immediately to prolong the school year.

Afterward, parents and pastors confronted Head Start's site administrator.

"Is there an imminent danger where a kid could lose their life, limb, eye, leg that would keep these facilities from being open?" Pastor R.L. Gundy, of SCLC, asked.

"I am telling you that the things we are aware of have been publicly in the newspaper, so anyone can read what the issues have been," Head Start site manager Suellen Hixon said.

"So this is stuff you got from the newspaper?" Gundy said.

"No, these are sightings of health and safety. I'm sorry I can't share any information," Hixon said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson was there Wednesday urging CDI to halt the closure.

"If there were real safety issues, they would have had the children removed long before now," Gibson said. "They've been there since early April, and all of a sudden there's a safety factor? I don't think so."

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.

If you are looking for guidance to more affordable options for early education, contact the Early Learning Coalition at 904-208-2044.

For information to see if a childcare provider is certified and/or licensed, click here or call 904-723-2064.

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