When Congress reauthorized Head Start in 2007, a little girl named Cynthia Martinez-Cardoso from one of the District’s longest-running Head Start centers sat in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lap as she signed the bill.
The law put into motion sweeping changes designed to improve the quality of the nation’s largest preschool program for poor families, in part by introducing competition and cutting off funding for the lowest performers.
Seven years later, scores of grantees have lost their awards, including the one that served Martinez-Cardoso.
The Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center has been a backdrop for political news conferences and a destination for foreign dignitaries. Now it’s among the first in the Washington region to lose its grant.
“It was a shock. It was definitely a shock,” said Almeta R. Keys, the center’s chief executive, who began her Head Start career more than 30 years ago as a Head Start mother.
The Mazique Center, which served about 275 children and families in four sites in the past school year, is operating under transitional funding through the end of this month to help its families make new plans.
But Keys hopes to keep the doors open and continue providing the same child-care, medical and social services, albeit without the $3.1 million in federal funding she said the center received last year.
“There is a great need in this city for the types of services we offer,” Keys said. “There is no way we can think of closing.”
Head Start, which costs about $8 billion a year and serves a million children and families nationwide, has been under pressure to improve quality amid reports of fiscal mismanagement and questionable academic outcomes.
Reforms reflect shifting political priorities for Head Start, from the anti-poverty program that began in the 1960s to an increasingly education-oriented program aimed at reducing the achievement gap between students from rich and poor families.
The 2007 reauthorization raised the education requirements for Head Start teachers and changed the grant-making process.
Traditionally, Head Start grantees lost funding only in extreme circumstances. Under the revised law, grantees were given five-year awards.
Strong performers would be renewed, but those flagged for quality concerns would have to compete for continued funding.
Approximately 360 of the nation’s 1,700 Head Start grantees have been required to compete for continued Head Start funding, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And of 245 grantees who competed and received final decisions, 171 — about 70 percent — were awarded new grants.
For Mazique, the trigger for competition was a concern identified during a review that was not promptly addressed, according to federal records.
The review found that the center had not provided adequate staff training for eligibility, selection, recruitment and enrollment procedures.
Mazique competed as part of a pilot group that was encouraged to design innovative programs spanning the birth-to-5 age group. Typically, centers apply separately for Head Start and Early Head Start grants.
Keys said she submitted the application in May 2013 and then saw an announcement about the winners online the following February. The list included Bright Beginnings ; District of Columbia Public Schools; Rosemount Center; and United Planning Organization.
It did not include Mazique. The notice was marked “preliminary,” but Keys started planning accordingly. She said she was not officially notified of the ruling until this summer.
Keys told her staff first. Then she called a meeting with her families.
“It’s like your home is being foreclosed,” said Shannon Jeter, a nursing assistant and Mazique mother whose three sons have gone through the program. “It’s scary. . . . You don’t know what you are going to do.”
Keys said she laid off about 34 people and then called many of them back to work temporarily after she got two months of transition funding.
Many advocates for early childhood education say the new system is necessary to improve the quality of Head Start but it could use some improvements, including more timely notification for grantees.
They would also like to see the quality of instruction — rather than regulatory compliance — play a more prominent role in determining which grants are selected to compete.
“I would be surprised if there were not some bumps in the road, but overall I think this is a very good thing,” said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Office of Head Start, said the government “makes every effort to reduce risk of disruption for children, families and staff,” in particular by timing the transitions for the summer.
Keys said she does not fault the process.
Four of her five children went through Head Start in Louisiana, and she has spent her career with Head Start, including a stint as a fellow in the federal office.
“I’m rooted in Head Start. I’m vested in Head Start, not just because I have a job but because I have a mission,” she said.
The Mazique Center’s main office on 13th Street NW is covered with plaques and certificates and pictures of Keys with children’s advocates and politicians, including President Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius.
“People say, ‘Do you want to see a good, high-quality program? Visit Mazique,’ ” Keys said.
Now she is hoping to keep the doors open with local child-care subsidies for parents who are working or in school, by admitting fee-paying families, and by expanding special-education services.
Mazique also got a grant from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education that will help open new classrooms at a birthing center in Northeast Washington.
Keys said she expects to have about 130 children enrolled in September and to continue to rebuild.
She also plans to apply for another Head Start grant, but she is cautiously optimistic.
“I know it’s a competitive process,” she said.