Head Start Tight-Lipped on Which Centers to Lose Aid

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Despite the announcement earlier this month that dozens of low-performing Head Start centers would lose grants after recompeting for the federal preschool funds, the Office of Head Start still refuses to specify which—leaving advocates to scrutinize the agency’s statements for details as the process grinds forward.

"We don't want to say yet that there are any 'losers,' " said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, the director of Head Start, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and serves about a million disadvantaged children younger than 5. "Officially, we are issuing the notice of award July 1. Until then, anything can happen."

Earlier this month, the department announced that of the first wave of 125 grantees asked to recompete for their funding, 80 would continue to get their full grants, 25 would lose the aid, and 14 would have their grant money split among multiple recipients. Six are still operating, but Head Start wants to have another competition in those areas because no applicant met the department's standards.

But instead of naming those that failed the make the cut, the agency has released a list of 160 potential grantees going forward—prompting interested parties to try their own cross-matching to determine which providers were on the list to compete but did not make it to the list of potential grantees. Every provider's contract must be negotiated, and some programs slated to lose money may yet come back from the brink, Ms. Sanchez Fuentes said.

The competition marked the first time providers in the 48-year-old program that distributes $7.6 billion yearly were asked to demonstrate why they deserved to keep their money. Previously, money generally was taken from a provider only in the case of fiscal mismanagement or serious health and safety issues.

The Head Start office is also poring over a second wave of 122 centers that were told in January that they would also have to compete for funds.

On the Hit List?

Some centers are already making plans to close. They include the First African Methodist Episcopal Child Development Center in Seattle, which serves 264 children and has been in operation for 33 years, said Johnnie Cain, the center's director. He confirmed that the program had been told it would not be receiving its Head Start grant after June 30, and that the money is slated to be parceled out among three different organizations in the city, so that no current family should lose access.

Mr. Cain told Education Week in an interview that he had no further comment, but he was slightly more forthcoming in an article in the Seattle Times, in which he said he had "no idea" why the program was losing its funding.

But federal regulators have warned First AME since at least 2011 about noncompliance issues, the Seattle Times said. For example, the newspaper said, the center did not ensure that children received required medical examinations, a majority of its board failed to attend seven of the eight board meetings between December 2009 and February 2011, and the program was charging the government above-market rates for office and parking space.

Robert Radford, the director of the 148-child United Indians of All Tribes Head Start, also in Seattle, said that the center was told it would not have its grant renewed. Mr. Radford said that the center will struggle to maintain staff morale and parent involvement, but that ultimately he felt the evaluation was done fairly. He said that the center could continue to exist if it is selected by a grantee as a subcontractor, also known in Head Start as a "delegate agency."

Large and Small

The competition also brought major changes to huge programs, such as the one run by the Los Angeles County Office of Education. That program received more than $200 million a year from the federal government and, through a number of "delegates," or agencies that provided direct services, offered early-childhood programs for 22,000 children, said Kostas Kalaitzidis, the public-information officer for the agency.

The federal Head Start office is in negotiations to have 14 providers in Los Angeles County now, instead of one "supergrantee." The changes would reduce the county board of education's scope of responsibility to about 9,000 slots for children and an annual budget of about $95 million, Mr. Kalaitzidis said.

But the program is still waiting to hear the results of the negotiations with the potential new grantees, most of which were formerly delegate agencies striking out on their own. "Right now, there is so little we know," Mr. Kalaitzidis said. "This is a new experience, and the system is working to find out how things should be."

Joel Ryan, the director of the Washington State Head Start Association, said he gives high marks to the federal Head Start office for how it has handled the competition, with some caveats.

Mr. Ryan said the fact that about two-thirds of the grantees will have their grants renewed raises questions. Among them, he said, is whether the net is too large—therefore scooping up centers with few problems—"or that the competition wasn’t as strong as it could be."

Another concern expressed by Mr. Ryan is that federal Head Start officials seem to be consumed with the process of handling the competition, even as new providers require assistance from federal officials.

But Mr. Ryan also said the competition seems to be successful, so far, in removing poorly performing programs.

Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, said she was not surprised by the number of grant recipients that were able to retain their funding. "To me, the programs have just been really committed to improving," she said

Provider Concerns

But Ms. Vinci repeated a concern expressed by other providers, which is that grantees are being told they need to compete because of what they see as relatively minor issues. "Some fabulous programs were in [the competition] were having a child leave the classroom unattended and go down the hall," she said. "That happens all the time; kids do run out of the classroom and wander off."

Head Start providers are told to self-report such incidents, which could trigger a competition, she said.

The changes in Head Start come at a time of increased focus on federal government support of early-childhood-education programs.

Head Start, in particular, has been under the microscope: In 2005, the seeds for competition were planted when a report from the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency of Congress, criticized financial mismanagement in the program and said defunding some grantees might be a solution.

Late last year, the final phase of a randomized, controlled studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader of nearly 5,000 children found that the academic benefits for Head Start for children who entered at age 4 had largely disappeared by the time those children were in 3rd grade, when compared with peers who were not enrolled in Head Start.

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Critics have seen the study as further proof that the program has failed in its mission; supporters say that the study did not measure the nonacademic benefits of the program. Many saw it as a call to improve the quality of providers.

As the first competition among programs wraps up, Ms. Sanchez Fuentes says that the Health and Human Services Department is listening to all those concerns and plans changes as the second cohort of grantees goes through the process.

At the top of the list is making sure that community organizations know that Head Start money is out there. "A lot of communities were surprised to see this money is available," Ms. Sanchez Fuentes said. The Head Start office will add site visits to its outreach efforts, she said.

Increased Scrutiny

The federal office is also revamping its monitoring systems to provide more of a "case management" model that can provide comprehensive support to Head Start grantees, which the office believes will be particularly important to new grantees.

"We're going to visit our incumbents and our brand-new ones during the first year [of their grants]," Ms. Sanchez Fuentes said. "We're absolutely going to be giving them the technical assistance and the support that they need, and we’re going out and making sure they are implementing what they agreed to implement."

Vol. 32, Issue 29, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: April 24, 2013, as Head Start Officials Tight-Lipped on Which Centers to Lose Aid
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An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the large agency that runs Head Start programs in Los Angeles County. It is the Los Angeles County Office of Education

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