OAKHURST — Parents and community members are rallying around a local Head Start program in hope of stalling a newly proposed budget that would result in shutting doors on the child care center, permanently, as of June 1, 2016.
The program’s overseer, Community Action Partnership of Madera County (CAP-MC) has a regularly scheduled board meeting set for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11 in Madera. Concerned citizens plan to protest the proposed closure and, afterwards, the CAP-MC Board of Directors will vote and have final say whether or not to approve the new budget and its inherent changes.
“We had no clue that this was going to happen,” one surprised parent commented. “We didn’t even know the center was struggling.”
A petition is circulating right now online to prevent the closing of the Head Start program, which will divert funds and provide teachers with a raise.
“While we understand that all the teachers deserve a raise, we will not accept losing our Head Start program to fund that,” states the petition. Sign the petition here, or in person at Pak and Page and Fashion 41 located in Oakhurst.
14 Head Start centers are operating this year in Madera County, including centers Madera and Chowchilla, along with one in Mariposa, one in North Fork and one in Oakhurst. All of the centers are currently operating at full capacity, except for the Oakhurst site and the Sunrise center in Madera.
Head Start is a federally funded program that provides free childcare to low income families and lunch, as well. The current location for the Oakhurst center is adjacent to Oak Creek Intermediate school, where it has been run for about four years of its roughly two decades in Oakhurst. The program is set up for 15 students at this time; two students have recently moved and another may be leaving, so their enrollment for this month is down to 12 or 13 children. Under-enrollment is part of the perceived problem with the site.
If the Oakhurst center closes, it’s likely that many of the families will not be able to afford private preschool programs and unknown whether local school programs like Transitional Kindergarten will be able to take the youngest children Head Start serves.
“This is a proposal that we are presenting, it’s not a fact yet, and it’s not approved,” says Madera Head Start Director, Maritza Gomez, of the potential shut-down.
The process by which Head Start makes many center-related decisions is through a Parent Policy Council (PPC), where one parent is elected from the enrolled families to represent each center.
“PPC meetings are public and members receive informational packets, usually by that Monday prior to the meeting so they have the four days to review the materials that we provide to them. The packet is mailed a week prior and they are also sent to the center to post on the parent bulletin board so that other center parents have access to all the information.”
Gomez says that parents at the PPC meeting were informed of the decision to draft a budget that would close the Oakhurst site, and a Madera site, due to the center’s inability to find income-eligible families. A parent representative for the Oakhurst site confirms she received the packet on the Monday before the meeting, but was previously unaware that the center was in trouble.
The PPC meets monthly and, in the most recent meeting held on Feb. 4, the group of ten attendees voted 6 to 4 in favor of approving a budget that would lead to closure of the Oakhurst facility.
“We provided information about the fact that the preschool and Transitional Kindergarten (TK) are serving the four-year-olds that otherwise would have been served by Head Start. In Head Start regulations centers need to report enrollment on a monthly basis, because we are required to be fully enrolled, and they look at all the centers together as a whole.”
The total enrollment for all the Head Start programs under CAP-MC is a possibility of 312 children served. According to Gomez, consistent under-enrollment at any center can potentially put other centers at risk for funding cut-off.
“There was discussion at the end of last week’s meeting about the fact that, if we continued as-is there was a possibility of losing the program in Madera County altogether. If we are under-enrolled, there is that possibility. The two sites mentioned are the only ones under-enrolled. The group has two vacancies in Oakhurst and two at Sunset, so out of 312 children that should be enrolled in Head Start throughout the region, we have 308. The other centers are full.”
One question parents have asked is whether there has been enough outreach to keep the Oakhurst center fully enrolled.
“Recruitment is done by our staff at the center and our advocates,” Gomez says. “They do recruitment throughout the community, attending community events, distributing our flyer through First 5 and the Department of Family Services, grocery stores, elementary schools, medical and dental providers. I don’t think the low enrollment is for lack of trying.”
Parents and community members want the organization to renew its efforts to advertise the program online, in the newspaper, at the Children’s Museum, the library, apartments and churches.
Another concern is that the Oakhurst location is not easily visible from the street, with some saying the facility location is so low profile as to be unknown. Gomez says facilities for Head Start don’t come around very easily, or very often. The current site is shared with the Madera Office of Education.
“They are open in the morning, and we hold our class in the afternoon,” Gomez notes. “Otherwise, without the shared space, the Oakhurst site would have been gone a long time ago. Before that, it was located at Oakhurst Elementary School, and we were sharing with the state preschool. When they expanded, we had to move out.”
It’s not uncommon for expansion of state services to cut into the revenue and enrollment of the national Head Start program.
“Governor Brown recently approved additional funding for state preschool,” adds Gomez. “We don’t know how much money is going to come to our community, and when they get additional funding and expand their services, that overlaps, cuts into and affects our services and abilities.”
The new budget proposal is slated to close the Oakhurst and Sunrise Madera locations, and move that allotment of funds over to the remaining centers for expansion. All centers are currently open four days per week, but would be opened five days per week under the new plan.
“Our students receive service Monday through Thursday for 3 1/2 hours each day. One of the options within the new budget is that we return that unused funding back to the Feds, or we can request to keep the funding and expand our services, so we are choosing the latter.”
The Head Start program plans to increase hours from 128 to 151 days of service per year.
“We want to be able to be competitive and appealing to parents. We don’t feel like 128 days for 3.5 hours is enough for the children to be to be ready for kindergarten, and we want to be able to provide quality services to the children that are coming to our Head Start.”
A raise in pay for remaining teachers is also part of the new budget plan.
“The pay raise is something we wanted to address, because a salary study we conducted in 2014 compared our staff to other CAP agencies and they are underpaid. If we have the opportunity to be able to raise their salaries to make us more competitive, we want to, because we also are losing staff to Madera Unified and other places that offer child development services.” Head Start teachers must have a Child Development Associate Teacher Permit through the California Department of Education, requiring specific education among other criteria.
While no one is suggesting teachers don’t need a raise, one parent has stated that “it is not okay to close one center so those children get no services, while other children can get one more day. We want our children highly educated and they need preschool at age three with all they expect in kindergarten now.”
Director Gomez explains that her role has her attempting to look out for and maintain the viability of the entire Head Start program in Madera County.
“It’s an excellent program with dedicated staff who are very committed to the children, parents and families of the communities we serve. Head start is about the families. I would hate for us to lose our program and I also understand the parents in Oakhurst don’t want to lose their service, either.”
The CAP-MC Board will decide on the matter this Thursday. There is still a possibility, says Gomez, that the Board could determine this budget has reached an impasse, and it would then go back to Parent Policy Council for reconsideration. If that happens, Gomez has a suggestion for the community.
“If they want to keep the services I would like them to support us in doing the outreach and referring families. If maybe they didn’t know about our Head Start program, come in to the center, talk to the staff, get information about the program so they know what it’s about and what we can do for the child and the family.”
The meeting is set for Thursday, Feb. 11 at 5:30 p.m. in Madera at Community Action Partnership MC — 1225 Gill Ave, Rooms 1 and 1a.
More information on the Head Start program is available at CAP-MC.