Prince George’s County school officials announced Friday that they will retain control of their troubled Head Start early-education program for this school year but will operate it without a federal grant, rename it Early Start and pay for it with $5.5 million in local funds.
The plan follows negotiations with federal officials that go back to August, when school officials learned that their Head Start grant was being terminated amid a failure to correct problems that included alleged staff misconduct and child abuse.
The school board ultimately voted to relinquish the federal grant of more than $6 million, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) tapped a Denver-based organization to step in on an interim basis to continue services to prekindergarten students in the Maryland suburb.
But discussions about how that organization — Community Development Institute Head Start (CDI) — would operate the program for economically disadvantaged children ended this week without an agreement, according to district officials. The county could not get guarantees that the 855-student program would continue at its current size, that all staff would have jobs or that each student would be in the same location, with the same teacher.
District officials also said that although CDI was interested in hiring district staff, the union-covered employees would have had to resign from the district, losing seniority and retirement benefits.
Schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell said the new plan achieves the district’s main goals: no disruptions for students and families, no reduction of services and the use of certified teachers. The program has a staff of 102, including 51 teachers.
“Those things were very important to us, and this program accomplishes that for us,” Maxwell said. “Every child that we started with, we’ll continue with, and they will all have a highly qualified, degreed teacher.”
Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, said the reaction among Head Start staff has been relief. “Why should innocent people have lost their jobs?” she said.
School officials said they would compensate for losing the $6.4 million federal grant by eliminating 19 of their 20 central-office positions for Head Start, at a savings of $2.6 million, and by imposing a “hard freeze” this school year on hiring for central-office vacancies, which would cut $2.9 million. The district has received $900,000 in federal grant funds as negotiations were in progress, school officials said.
“We’re assuming this responsibility so our children get what they need and our families get what they need,” Maxwell said.
School district officials said the new Early Start would be in place just for this school year and that they expect Head Start to go on in Prince George’s.
Federal officials voiced similar sentiments Friday about the future of Head Start, saying they remain committed to continuing their annual $6.4 million grant to the county.
CDI is already in the county, getting set up as the interim provider of Head Start services, with plans to serve children from birth to 5 years old, said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families. Plans are in the works for a competitive process to identify a permanent provider.
School officials said they will work with county government and others in the community to develop a strong application. Because they relinquished the grant, they are allowed to apply again.
Segun Eubanks, chairman of the Prince George’s school board, said he is satisfied that the district is moving in the right direction.
“There will probably be more students receiving early-childhood services than there otherwise would’ve been, which is a silver lining to a very unfortunate situation,” he said.
Eubanks said at least one board member, and sometimes more, was involved in meetings with federal officials and CDI. “The board was totally engaged in this process,” he said.
Federal authorities reported in August that a Prince George’s Head Start teacher forced a 3-year-old who wet his pants to mop up his own urine in front of the class. The teacher texted a photo to his mother, writing “LOL. He worked that mop tho!” In another incident, a teacher made two children who played during nap time hold heavy boxes over their heads for an extended period, according to federal findings. The teacher added more weight and time to the punishment if the children moved or dropped items.
In a separate incident, a 5-year-old child wandered away from her school unsupervised and walked home, unmonitored for 50 minutes.
Maxwell said the school system has stepped up measures to ensure safety. Six employees have been removed from the program, with three terminated and three recommended for termination, he said.
Staff members are being re-interviewed for their jobs, with updated background checks. They have been trained in positive-discipline practices, he said, and the county is creating a monitoring board to review parent concerns, staff responsiveness, training and other issues.
“We have done what we believe is the appropriate work to make sure that nothing like that happens again,” Maxwell said. “If it does, we are going to take quick, appropriate action against anybody who hasn’t behaved in the way that we believe that they should. But we do believe that with the additional training we’ve done, with the additional monitoring and supervision, that parents should feel it’s safe and appropriate for their children to be in school. ”
The district’s Early Start program will seem much like Head Start, with the same staff, curriculum, bus services, meals, vision and hearing screening, and learning assessments, said Monica Goldson, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. There also will be new mental-health supports, she said.
District officials said all children in Early Start will be offered a space in the district’s full-day pre-K or kindergarten programs next year.