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Moving Head Start Programs From Chicago Schools Assailed

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A plan to transfer Head Start programs run by the Chicago public schools to community-based centers has put the popular preschool program for disadvantaged children at the center of an emotional dispute pitting agency against agency and parent against parent.

"It's become a political football,'' said Tee Gallay, an education specialist on the staff of the Chicago City Council. "My basic concern is that it doesn't get so messed up that we lose funds.''

While most Head Start programs nationwide are run by private, nonprofit agencies, Chicago is one of the largest school districts operating a program. The Chicago Board of Education is the largest of 41 subgrantees of the city department of human services, Chicago's main Head Start grantee.

The board, which has been running its program since Head Start's inception in 1965, served 5,160 children at 129 sites in 1990.

After several years in which the Chicago program ran up deficits that were made good by the federal government, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1989 gave the city an ultimatum: Find a long-term solution or risk losing the program.

The city's D.H.S. and the school board agreed in September 1990 to shift the program from the schools to community-based centers over three years, 43 sites and 1,720 children at a time. The phaseout began this school year and will continue next year.

But the plan, which was cleared by an interim board while the district governance structure was being revamped under Chicago's school-reform plan, has been sharply resisted by parents and educators who fear losing preschool services and slots.

Although the new school board at first backed off, it approved the first phase of the transfer in May 1991 and this March cleared the second phase for the 1992-93 school year. But it pledged to try to come up with funds to keep the last 43 sites.

Role of Teacher Salaries

Although the plan's backers say the bottom line is financial, there are discrepancies in the figures the board and the D.H.S. cite for how much the schools received to run the program, how much it cost when overhead and other variables were factored in, and whether nonprofit centers were funded at higher or lower levels.

But both sides agree that rising teacher salaries contributed to the board's deficit.

"The straw that broke the camel's back,'' Ms. Gallay said, was when the board entered a three-year contract guaranteeing a 7 percent annual cost-of-living increase for teachers. City officials say public-school Head Start teachers--many of whom are veteran teachers with masters' degrees--on average earn $45,000, while teachers in the nonprofit centers earn from $15,000 to $18,000.

The board "priced itself out of the market,'' Ms. Gallay said.

Educators and parents opposed to the transfer, however, say the higher salaries have afforded the public-school programs a better-qualified and more stable staff, averting the high staff turnover that jeopardizes program continuity and quality in nonschool programs.

They also say having the program in schools makes it more convenient for families, eases children's transition to school, and helps spur parent involvement.

"We feel it's important in terms of continuity of service to children that we introduce the child and the parents to the school at age 3,'' said Velma Thomas, the director of early-childhood education for the school board. "Where we have Head Start in the schools, parents have become the leaders in the local school councils'' formed under the school-reform effort, she added.

But Maria Whelan, the director of children's services for the D.H.S., argued that local agencies "used to providing a myriad of support services'' may be able to better serve Head Start families, and have been successful in "empowering parents.''

"The Head Start program was always intended to be a community-based program,'' she said.

"We're smaller and we work on a more personal, intimate level,'' said Sylvia Campos, the director of a new program run by the El Valor Corporation, a community agency serving mainly Hispanics.

First-Year Glitches Cited

Apart from philosophical issues, glitches in the transfer have provoked "a lot of name-calling and finger-pointing,'' noted Bonnie Lopez, a local school-council member at the Linne Elementary School, who said many parents were "devastated'' at the prospect of losing Head Start.

The D.H.S. says that as of March it was serving 1,720 children in center-based programs. But critics charge it took several months for some new sites to open and that services have still not resumed for all the communities or children involved. A survey by Parents United for Responsible Education, or PURE, one group fighting the transfer, charged that halfway through the school year, one-third of the lost school slots had not been replaced.

In addition, a state-funded pre-K program the board had hoped would help fill the gap opened in only 16 of the 43 lost school sites.

City officials say delays in the board's final approval of the transfer bogged down the D.H.S.'s efforts to match all the new programs to areas where school sites were closing and get all the centers open in time. But the D.H.S. still sought to place the new sites in the areas of greatest need, they say, and most children received home visits and medical services in the interim.

Observers say a recent city council hearing on the issue sparked confrontations between the public-school and nonprofit sectors and between parents served by both.

"It's pitting Head Start parent against Head Start parent,'' said Joy Noven, the director of PURE.

But many say the focus should be serving all eligible preschoolers.

Stephen Ballis, a member of the school board, estimated that of the city's 78,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, only 20,000 are being served in public and private programs.

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