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Head Start Programs Back on Track In Denver Under New Management

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With two new agencies in charge, many children in Denver's Head Start programs went back to school last week. But despite the new grantees' promises to repair the damage caused by the previous agency and to remake the program into a progressive blend of services for 2,000 poor children and their families, some parents were anxious when they dropped off their preschoolers with new teachers in unfamiliar centers.

"Parents aren't sure what to think," said Yvette Moreno, whose son Joshua, 4, is in his second year of Head Start. "They were upset because they weren't notified that the same teachers weren't going to be there."

After waiting for more than a year to find out who would run the city's Head Start program--and wondering at times if there would even be Head Start in Denver--it's not surprising that parents are a bit apprehensive about the future of the program. Head Start is supposed to provide high-quality early education and be a stable source of family assistance.

Because of extensive mismanagement, the federal government last year yanked the Head Start grant from the former Denver grantee, Child Opportunity Program Inc., and placed the $10 million program in the hands of an interim agency.

National Questions

Though the move in Denver was unusual, questions have emerged in recent years about the ability of some nonprofit agencies throughout the country to manage the expanding federal preschool program for poor children--now a $4 billion-a-year enterprise.

"Sometimes the program doesn't grow with the dollars," said Beverly Turnbo, a regional administrator for the Administration for Children and Families, the division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that operates Head Start.

Since 1994, federal funds have been withdrawn from 77 grantees because of a failure to comply with Head Start standards, according to Michael Kharfen, an HHS spokesman.

Currently, 24 Head Start programs in the country are considered "high risk" by the federal government. They are at various stages of implementing what HHS calls "quality-improvement plans."

"Unless there is imminent danger, you usually don't cut off money," Ms. Turnbo said.

The rise in reports about troubled programs is largely due to a renewed commitment to crack down on low-quality programs, Mr. Kharfen said.

Before Congress reauthorized Head Start in 1994, "too many programs were getting away with providing the minimum," he said. "There is a much more intensive effort of holding programs to these quality standards."

The reauthorization also expanded services to more children and created the Early Head Start program to serve infants and toddlers. About 750,000 3- to 5-year-olds were served nationwide last year. Agencies typically offer education, medical and dental care, and a nutritional program, along with education programs and social services for parents.

Turnaround for Denver?

Problems within Denver's Child Opportunity Program, reported to the federal regional office early last year, focused on the actions of Eddie Lee Brandon, then the chairman of the agency's board. Federal officials said that he abruptly laid off employees, alienated parents, and misused funds by transferring Head Start dollars into other programs, purchasing equipment without permission, and buying out the contract of the former executive director. ("Parents Seek Ouster of Denver Head Start Official," April 3, 1996.)

Agency officials could not be reached for comment for this story, but previously said they disagreed with the findings.

HHS appointed an interim agency, the Clayton Foundation, which ran the city's Head Start centers last school year. Then in July, the federal government announced the two new grantees--the city of Denver and Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment--giving them less than two months to hire staff members and prepare facilities.

Some centers, those that Child Opportunity had allowed to operate below the government's strict Head Start standards, were closed. Others have been refurbished with fresh paint, better supplies, and new playground equipment.

Chuck Tafoya, the executive director of Rocky Mountain SER, said that he has tried to minimize the interruptions for families. "People need something that they can set their watch by," he said.

A traditional community-service agency, Rocky Mountain SER already runs Head Start programs in western Colorado.

For the city, this is a new endeavor, but it's one that officials believe they have the resources and the will to pull off. The city plans to contract with a variety of local agencies to provide Head Start's broad services.

"I don't fault people who are skeptical, but we've been successful in building partnerships," said Carol Boigon, the education aide to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

Another player in this collaboration is the Denver school district, which will house some classes, offer staff development, and provide services to Head Start preschoolers with disabilities. In recent years, the district limited its involvement to leasing space.

More Parent Involvement

So far, Ms. Moreno, who served last year on the city's Head Start policy council, says she's impressed. "I have seen Chuck [Tafoya] in many different places," she said. "I didn't even know who the director of [Child Opportunity] was. I never saw him."

A request for greater parent involvement and better communication was one of the concerns Ms. Turnbo heard when she held a series of 14 public meetings before choosing the new grantees.

Parents also wanted the education program to be more reflective of the large number of Hispanics in Denver, primarily by adding bilingual classes. They also wanted more full-day, full-year classes, and they wanted Head Start schedules to be aligned with those of the public schools.

Despite the many transitions the Denver program has been through, most people agree that the children were never affected.

In fact, the administrative problems at Child Opportunity had little consequence for the day-to-day operation of the classes.

But officials say there are limits to a staff's ability to shield families from chronic mismanagement. "If it goes on for long, you can't escape it," Mr. Kharfen said. "It eventually affects supplies and professional development."

While the problems in Denver were considered the most severe by federal officials, a number of Head Start grantees elsewhere have also been under fire:

In Los Angeles, an agency serving more than 1,750 children relinquished more than $8 million in federal support in May after it was found to have a number of deficiencies, including inadequate classroom supplies.

And in Ogden, Utah, an agency managing a $1.4 million Head Start grant has been found to have serious deficiencies, similar to those that caused Denver's Child Opportunity Program to lose funding.

The Ogden Area Community Action Agency is still considered "high risk," and its finances are being closely monitored by the regional office. But Ms. Turnbo said she believes the agency is doing its best to improve.

"It has been a wake-up call for us, and we feel like we're going to make it," said H.C. Massey, the executive director of the Ogden agency, which serves 376 children.

Big Business

Grantees can run into trouble over fiscal and administrative matters, because as small, grassroots organizations they sometimes don't have the expertise to manage the growing and evolving federal program.

In fact, it's been said that Head Start, which began in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, is now "big business"--an initiative that requires directors to supervise large staffs and agencies to form coalitions with other community groups.

But the problems can be more basic than that. "Sometimes you hire bad people, people who steal from you," Mr. Kharfen said.

A lack of meaningful parent involvement can also threaten funding. And sometimes agencies get complacent, relying on outdated methods instead of staying informed about new research in early-childhood education.

Most deficiencies within Head Start agencies are correctable, Ms. Turnbo said, unless the leaders become uncooperative.

Unlike the situation in Denver, problems within agencies don't usually result in the withdrawal of Head Start funding and don't always attract media attention.

Community Action Programs Inter-City, a grantee in Chelsea, Mass., had serious deficiencies in 1993. Records were not being properly maintained, mental-health services were not provided, and assistant teachers were also running bus routes--a task that left them no time to improve instruction.

But with a new director, improved supervision, and more staff development, the agency was able to overcome its troubles.

It's not unusual, Mr. Kharfen said, for programs to go through reviews and be told they're out of compliance in one or more areas, particularly now that Head Start has new standards and is serving more children than ever before.

Welfare-Reform Factor

The 1996 federal welfare-reform law has also created new challenges for Head Start agencies. Half-day Head Start programs are no longer practical for single mothers who need to work in order to receive public assistance as the new law requires.

One of the main reasons the city of Denver and Rocky Mountain SER were chosen was because both applicants promised to expand full-day, year-round classes.

Even as those classes get under way, the federal government's dealings with Child Opportunity Program Inc. continue.

An independent audit, released in February, concluded that the former grantee owes the government close to $800,000. Negotiations between the agency and the government on how the funds should be paid back are ongoing.

While HHS does maintain an "alert list" of local agencies that have had their grants terminated, it's not out of the question for Child Opportunity Program to become a Head Start grantee again, Ms. Turnbo said. "I've seen some former grantees that got their act together."

PHOTO: Above, Chuck Tafoya has worked to minimize disruptions at the centers that his organization has taken over. Left, after waiting over a year to find out who would run the Denver centers, Yvette Moreno now feels better about sending her 4-year old son Joshua to Head Start.
-- Eric Bakke

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