EDEN — Head Start staffers and Rockingham County Schools administrators are in nail-biter limbo as they wait for the federal government to approve the school system’s bid to take over administration of the early childhood education program.
In 14 days, the county government will end its tenure as administrator of the federal preschool program, which educators call an essential safety net for the county’s large contingent of low-income and minority youngsters.
School system officials are hopeful a team of around eight federal evaluators will decide to award $1.5 million in federal grant money for the Head Start program to RCS before the June 30 deadline when the county ends its contract and 61 Head Start staffers will find themselves unemployed.
While school administrators, including RCS Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Dr. Cindy Corcoran, have been fastidious and prompt in applying to take over Head Start — submitting a request for grantee status in mid-December, well before a February deadline — they are stymied until federal word arrives, Corcoran said Wednesday.
Corcoran and Stephanie Lowe Ellis, director of the Exceptional Children's Program, assured school board members during Monday night’s monthly meeting they have made repeated application status inquiries by email and phone to Atlanta-based Region Four Head Start officials.
Unfortunately, RCS has received little information back, they explained.
The school officials also enlisted the help of U.S. Rep Mark Walker, who recently wrote a letter to the regional review committee on behalf of RCS seeking application status details.
In further attempts to glean information about when the RCS application review will be complete, Corcoran and Ellis on June 9 sought a conference call with one of the federal staffers. They had not received communication in return at press time. And a spokesman for the federal office could not be reached for comment.
“My understanding is that it is just a very thorough review, and we have been told that six to eight individuals have to review’’ the request, Corcoran said Wednesday. “It’s a fairly lengthy process … we didn’t realize it was going to take as long as it has to do all the reviewing.’’
But “the big take away for me is you have to understand how much of a thorough investigative review they do … ,’’ Corcoran said. “We hope to hear something … We’d like to step in and reassure people that we would have control, to (let them know) that we are the grantee.’’
School administrators have been steadfast and diligent in seeking grantee status for more than six months, board member Doug Isley said during Monday’s board meeting.
“There’s no grass growing under these peoples’ feet,” Isley said. “This board has been very engaged in trying to get this grant in place. They’ve been full pedal to the metal all the way.’’
Fellow board member Amanda Bell told Ellis and Corcoran that while she is worried about the uncertainty Head Start staff face, “I can see you’ve been very tenacious in trying to get answers.’’
“My concern … is with the people who work for Head Start and the people we serve. These people have families … they cannot sit around and hope that Head Start will exist when it’s time to start school,’’ Bell said of staff needing job security.
“I will say that the staff have been very resilient, but they are very worried,’’ said Felissa H. Ferrell, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services who served as a former interim director of Head Start.
“But it’s not within the county’s control or the school system’s control,’’ Ferrell told the board. “We are waiting for the federal government. We’re trying to do all we can with the limited information we have from the federal government.’’
School officials have said they want to administer Head Start and preserve current staff in order to provide continuity to the program’s young children in a county where 60 percent of all kids live in low-income homes and only one in three enters kindergarten with benchmark skills needed to succeed.
Last year, disadvantaged children, ages 3-5, filled 14 Head Start classrooms in Eden, Reidsville, Draper, Wentworth, Stoneville, Madison, Ruffin and Williamsburg.
Head Start serves more than one million kids across the nation annually, and offers families resources, such as emotional and psychological support and financial and health and nutrition education.
An optimistic Rockingham County Manager Lance Metzler said Wednesday by email:“We anticipate hearing something soon from the Head Start Office. I am confident that we will be able to have a smooth transition for staff and students.’’
Having been the only county in the state to administer Head Start, commissioners last year decided to phase out the responsibility and yield to an administrative body with more expertise, such as the school system.
Metzler further said he may have more information early next week.
Meanwhile, Head Start staff at the Madison-based county program headquarters, were hoping for the best Wednesday. “It’s been rough waiting,’’ said one teacher who asked that her name not be used.
Even in the clinch, Corcoran remained confident Wednesday.
“I think we submitted a strong application, I would like to believe that if we were to be awarded the grant that it would be an opportunity for a really smooth transition and continued quality services for children who had been attending and their families and for those to come.”
If for some reason RCS were not deemed the grantee for Head Start, an organization called the Central Community Development Institute Head Start would likely step in to serve as a temporary administrator. The organization has served 200 regional programs as the National Interim Management Program since 2000. If an agency’s administrative responsibility ends and no replacement grantee has been approved, the Office of Head Start typically appoints the agency as interim manager.