Feds deny Head Start funding to Newark Preschool Council

By Naomi Nix/The Star-Ledger
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on June 08, 2014


The Newark Preschool Council Head Start Center.


NEWARK — Jocelyn Rodriguez has been impressed during the past school year with her three daughters' teachers at The Newark Preschool Council Sharpe James Head Start Center.

So she became worried when she learned last week that the federal government planned to turn the school's Head Start operations over to another organization.

"They are second parents. I trust them," the 40-year-old mother said of the school. "They are very professional."

The Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, is forcing the council, a network of 35 preschools, to transfer its Head Start programs to a government-sanctioned operator.

But the council filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court alleging the department failed to properly evaluate its application for funding, and has not given the council any information about how it plans to transfer its operations.

“We haven’t gotten any of that information,” said Newark Preschool executive director Karen Highsmith. “We don’t have that level of detail yet."

The council received its first Head Start grant in 1965, and was automatically renewed for a grant for 32 years between 1982 and 2014, according to the council.

Today, the council has 35 locations and educates about 2,400 students annually. It also has relationships with six or seven other schools or collaboration partners, for which it runs certain educational and training programs.

In 2012, the council received a "deficiency notice" from the department, saying the council did not have an effective procedure in place to monitor the operations of those collaboration partners, according to the lawsuit.

In January 2013, the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Heath and Human Services, sent the council a letter saying it would no longer automatically qualify for renewed funding, in part, because of a deficiency.

Later that year, the Administration for Children and Families told the council that it had adequately corrected the deficiency, according to the lawsuit.

But the council would still have to re-compete for Head Start grant funding to last over a five-year term, starting next month, according to the council.

The council submitted an application but learned recently it had been denied the funding, the council and Administration for Children and Families spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said.

The council's lawsuit also alleges that the Administration for Children and Families did not follow proper protocol for evaluating the council's application.

“What we got back was a little shocking and hard to believe,” Highsmith said. "In the 50 years we've been here we haven't had issues (with) our performance and our standards.”

Highsmith said the council leadership is working to schedule meetings with the Administration for Children and Families, and with community stakeholders to discuss details about the transition.

Wolfe said the Community Development Institute will take over the program on an interim basis, while its office looks for a grantee to run Head Start programs in the area. He added that the Institute often hires existing staff members to run Head Start programs during transitions such as these to maintain a continuity of services.

But that doesn't mean parents at the Sharpe James Head Start Center are not concerned. Oliver Payano, 40, said he has been happy with the way his two daughters have learned their alphabet and numbers at the school.

"They're good," Payano said of the school. "They should just keep it the same way."

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