County seeks funding for alternative Head Start program after sudden funding cut

Only two children fully met income qualifications; educators proposing new way forward

Rappahannock public school officials are working with the Child Care Learning Center and the department of social services on an alternative for children impacted by the loss of Head Start, a federally funded early childhood education program that had its funding cut suddenly just before the start of the school year, school Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley said recently.

Head Start targets low-income children under five and their families, providing them with education, health, social and other services in preparation for kindergarten. Children have to meet certain criteria and must be living below the poverty line to be eligible for the program, which has been administered separate from the public school preschool class.

During a school board meeting Tuesday night, Grimsley explained that Skyline Community Action Partnership, a private non-profit organization based in Madison County that receives and coordinates the funding for the program, notified the school board over a week ago that this year’s funding would be pulled and reallocated because information from the federal level showed that there were not enough eligible children in Rappahannock to fill a Head Start class.

“The timing could not have been worse because at that point it was a week before school so our preschool class was already filled,” Grimsley said. She said she was notified that a change in service might be possible but it would not affect the 2018-2019 school year, which is why the pre-K slots were filled.

Skyline CAP said in a statement that it received official notification from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, which administers and funds the program, on Aug. 1.

“Over the past several years, we’ve seen a significant reduction in enrollment by income-eligible families living in Rappahannock,” Simon Fiscus, Skyline CAP’s Head Start director, said in the statement. “In the past we have accepted children who do not meet the low-income criteria in order to get a full classroom. That approach is no longer sustainable.”

The decision to close the program was made after reviewing the impact to families and identifying other preschool options available to meet students’ needs, the statement continued.

The news came as a surprise to many county residents and left public school officials scrambling to place the neediest children in their pre-K program.

But scramble they have.

Head Start was slated to begin after Labor Day, and Grimsley said she hopes to present a proposal to the Board of Supervisors early next month outlining what it would cost CCLC and social services to provide a similar service.

“We’re going to try everything we can,” Grimsley said. “But in the meantime, we need an alternative program to try to take care of this, and that’s what the funding proposal will do, whether it’s through grants or asking the board of supervisors directly.”

The school is sending out letters and calling for information to determine whether families are interested. As part of the funding proposal, they’re also assessing how many children an alternative program could take. Head Start typically takes 18 to 20 students per class, Skyline CAP said.

It had accepted six children for the upcoming school year, only two of which it said fully met income qualifications. According to Grimsley’s calculations, 15 children would have either qualified for the program because of income-based need or would have been waitlisted. The preschool class has taken on some of the neediest children, but that has pushed classroom numbers higher than normal. The school is providing its preschool class with additional aides and support to handle the overflow.

Grimsley says the goal is to get Head Start funding back next year through a different community assistance organization, and she believes the numbers exist to show there are children here in need. According to an assessment of government data, including Census figures, released last year by People, Inc., a non-profit community action agency, more than 16 percent of children in Rappahannock are living in poverty.

Losing the funds has also raised a broader discussion about whether the county should come up with some alternatives that wouldn’t be as vulnerable to sudden funding cuts. A similar thing happened in 2014 when after just one year Rappahannock lost funding for the Virginia Preschool Initiative, a state-funded program that helps schools provide quality preschool.

One option they’re exploring is to go through CCLC, which originally brought the Head Start program to Rappahannock and has continued to offer an enriched curriculum that already meets most of the needs of that program. Lisa Pendleton, CCLC’s program director, says the challenge now is really about finding the kids in need, and the funding.

But there could be a silver lining.

“It’s a great opportunity to think in a different way, to create a collaboration around our children,” said Eve Brooks, a board member of CCLC and a long-time educator.

“There are ways today to look at all the resources in a small community and to plan to coordinate those resources, and that’s what we should be doing over the next year or so,” she added. “By meeting together we’re moving in that direction, and that’s really positive.”

Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 20 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.