Some schools lose in Head Start transfer

Print More

The controversial transfer of 89 Head Start programs from schools to community agencies shortchanged 21 schools and three of the city’s most needy communities, according to an analysis by the reform group Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE).

The transfer was made in 1991 and 1992 because of forecasts that teacher salary increases would put the schools’ Head Start programs increasingly in the red. As it turned out, salaries did not rise as projected. That development, along with problems in finding and preparing community sites, prompted the Board of Education and the city, which oversees Head Start locally, to drop plans for the third and final phase of the transfer.

“We don’t see any further reductions [in the schools],” says Kevin Hannaway, Head Start manager for the city’s Department of Human Services.

The transfer cost the federal government $4.4 million, which was the tab for rehabbing community sites to meet city and state licensing requirements.

PURE’s analysis of the transfer shows that 21 of the 89 schools that lost Head Start classrooms have been unable to replace them with preschool programs of any kind.

Further, PURE reports, three of the 10 communities that the Department of Human Services identified in 1994 as most underserved lost Head Start slots in the transfer:

North Lawndale qualifies for 1,022 more publicly funded preschool slots but lost 120.

Humboldt Park qualifies for 1,011 more slots but lost 80.

The Near West Side qualifies for 703 more slots but lost 80.

Six other communities also lost Head Start slots: Grand Boulevard, Edgewater, West Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing, Auburn/Gresham, and Bridgeport. The PURE report, however, did not list communities that gained Head Start slots.

Everyone involved in the transfer concedes it was an ordeal. “The first problem was that there just weren’t enough licensable facilities out there that could handle these programs,” says Barbara Jean Cizak, executive director of the Chicago Association for the Education of Young Children. “That was the No. 1 problem.”

Unlike the public schools, private facilities serving children younger than 6 must have a day care license from the state and a business license from the city. Also, at the time of the transfer, new city requirements regarding fire alarms and smoke detectors forced many agencies to undertake substantial renovations.

Thus, transfer sites were selected more on the basis of qualifying space than of community need, according to Carol Dellahousaye, project director at Voices for Illinois Children and Head Start consultant to PURE. “Clearly the transition was not something that was well thought-out and planned,” she adds.

Sites were so slow in coming on line that hundreds of children were denied full Head Start services for months on end.

In the wake of the turmoil, the Department of Human Services (DHS) took several steps to improve its administration of Head Start. In July 1994, it published a handbook for so-called delegate agencies on the selection and renovation of sites. It also hired the Chicago company Schal Bovis to serve as its facility renovation consultant.

In October 1994, DHS hired Midwest Management Consultants, Inc. to review its procedures for facility renovations and for monitoring delegate agencies. (At the time, 52 delegate agencies administered Head Starts at 217 sites.) “While facilities management is a necessary component of these programs,” Midwest Management subsequently reported, “it is beyond the current scope of DHS’s mission and administrative expertise.”

Though the firm found that DHS had made major changes, it called for further improvements in five areas, ranging from paying construction vouchers faster to hiring additional staff with specific technical skills.

DHS’s Hannaway says that the agency has begun implementing some of the recommendations and has plans to address them all. For example, it has put a facility coordinator in its budget and adapted its computer system to include information about renovation costs. In addition, he says, “We’re finishing a survey of sites, and we hope to have a five-year plan . . . for program improvement.”

“When you start something new, it’s never a smooth process,” says Dennis Chudoba, child development director for the Boys and Girls Clubs, which administers Head Start programs at several sites. “For part of the first year we had some children served in a home setting,” he recalls.

“Was it the right thing to do?” he muses about the transfer. “Who knows? I think there’s more accountability in community-based agencies, and I think Head Start does more as a program within quality community-based agencies, but that’s just my personal opinion, and not all community-based agencies are quality agencies.”

Dellahousaye counters: “Schools have some benefits to offer that community-based agencies do not. Families look to schools for support. They want their younger children to be with their older siblings who are already in school. Having Head Start in the schools allows children to be introduced to school, and Head Start has a proven track record of getting parents involved early. The question is, is Head Start where it needs to be to serve the kids who need it the most?”

Perhaps the only clear winner in the Head Start transfer are the churches and other facilities that provide Head Start classrooms. In the transfer process, a number of the facilities got updated fire alarm systems, office suites and so on.

In the basement of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Logan Square, for instance, Christopher House administers a Head Start program with 68 slots. In order to meet building code and state licensing requirements, the fire alarm system had to be upgraded, a small office wing was sectioned off, and some minor alterations were made to the classrooms and bathroom.

“Two congregations use the church,” says Mark McHugh, child and family services director for Christopher House, “and they do use the classroom space when Head Start isn’t in session.”

Partly for this reason, DHS requires a 10-year lease from each facility, even though each delegate agency must renew its Head Start contract annually. “We don’t want to put money into renovation and then have the building owner cancel the next year,” Hannaway explains.