Free preschools for children of low-income families will be slow in starting this fall because of a change in the management of programs in Moore and two nearby counties.
Head Start, a federally funded program that has enrolled about 150 children a year in Moore County, won’t recommence operations for at least another month. When it does, only two of the four existing centers are likely to reopen.
Head Start is an all-day program that typically follows the traditional school calendar. The program provides comprehensive educational, health, social and family engagement services to address the developmental needs of at-risk children.
On Aug. 1, the federal government awarded a grant to Save The Children Federation, Inc. to manage programs in Moore, Montgomery and Stanly counties beginning this fall and run until 2024.
Save the Children is a Connecticut-based nonprofit that has operated Head Start programs since 2011. It currently serves 1,600 children in Louisiana, Arkansas and North Dakota and is making its first foray into North Carolina this year.
The organization bases its Head Start administration in Raleigh. Save the Children has also secured a contract to run Head Start in Cabarrus County for the next five years.
According to Khari Garvin, Save the Children’s executive director for Head Start, the program will serve 130 children in Moore County each year. As of last year, centers in Aberdeen, Southern Pines, Taylortown and Vass offered Head Start programs to children 3 and 4 years of age. The Aberdeen and Southern Pines centers also offered Early Head Start for infants and toddlers.
Of the 130 children expected to be served, 90 will be in the Head Start program, while 40 will be in Early Head Start.
Garvin said that the organization will only operate two of the four centers moving forward, but that both of them will offer the dual Early Head Start and Head Start.
“Part of our strategy in the Head Start space is that, to the extent that we can, we endeavor to operate true birth-to-age-5 centers in the community,” he said.
He declined to specify which two centers will be opening, since Save the Children is still in the process of taking over building leases from the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency, which ran Head Start in Moore County for the last 25 years. That agency had encountered financial difficulties in recent years.
Spending overruns in 2014 and 2015 left the organization cutting employee pay two years ago to overcome a $1.3 million deficit. At the time, officials with SRCAA claimed that the cost of unforeseen facility repairs required by the federal Head Start office outstripped its funding. Later in 2017, the organization hired a new director. SRCAA will still operate Head Start programs in Rowan and Davidson counties moving forward.
“In consultation with Head Start, a decision was made that Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency could better meet its mission of providing quality Head Start and Early Head Start services by refocusing its programming in Davidson and Rowan Counties,” Rocky Cabagnot, SRCAA’s executive director, said in a news release.
“While that decision means that SRCAA is removing its operations from Stanly, Montgomery and Moore Counties, we believe that these communities are in good hands with Save the Children.”
Admission to Head Start is based on a series of qualifying factors. Typically children from low-income families qualify, as do children in foster care and children considered homeless.
Every five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Head Start sets grant amounts for service areas across the country — which can range from a single city to several counties — based on area demographics. The agency that offers the most competitive package of services within that cost is awarded the grant.
Nationally, about $10 billion in federal funding goes to Head Start programs that serve more than 1 million children. Last year, Head Start programs in North Carolina received $210 million in federal funding to serve 21,000 children.
Between Moore, Stanly and Montgomery counties, Save the Children will serve 324 children in Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
“All of our Head Start grants are concentrated in rural communities across the country. Our goal really is to go into service areas where there might be very few options of viable agencies to take on the work for any number of reasons,” Garvin said. “Our ambition is to go into under-resourced areas, take on those programs, strengthen them and provide the highest quality service to children and families that we can and then partner with a local entity who can take on that work.”
Save the Children originally applied to run the three local Head Start programs in 2018. Garvin said that the delay in starting the program this year is due to the late date that Save the Children received its contract.
“That gave us the first legal opportunity to begin the lengthy process of getting the centers started up,” he said.
In addition to transferring the leases, Save the Children must also be licensed with the N.C. Department of Child Development and Early Education before it can begin programming for more than four hours per day.
Garvin expects for those loose ends to be tied up in time for Head Start to reopen by early October. In the meantime, the agency is also in the process of hiring staff for the upcoming year. Staff, primarily teachers and classroom assistants, whose credentials don’t meet current Head Start program standards will not necessarily be re-hired.
“It is our ambition and desire to hire on as many staff from the previous agency as possible, but there’s also one other consideration: we do need to make sure that anyone we hire meets the current credentialing requirements for Head Start,” he said.
Head Start classrooms are each staffed with a teacher and teacher assistant. Teachers should have a four-year degree in early childhood education or a related field, while teacher assistants should have at least an associate’s degree.
Save the Children is communicating with families whose children were enrolled in Head Start last year. But none of the local centers have been staffed over the summer, so parents seeking to sign their children up have not had a means of communication with the agency.
“As now we’re beginning in earnest the process of interviewing and hiring staff, we will begin to communicate more fully with the community at large but also emphasizing the families who were slated to return from the previous year,” Garvin said.
For information about Head Start’s re-opening, parents and prospective staff can call Save the Children’s North Carolina Head Start program director at (704) 207-5598.