OAKHURST — A group of parents and community members attended a Board meeting in Madera on Thursday, Feb. 11 and got their wish: the Oakhurst Head Start center, which had been on the verge of closing its doors permanently, will continue operation for the foreseeable future.
At a regularly scheduled meeting, the Community Action Partnership of Madera County (CAP-MC) Board of Directors voted on a proposed budget that would have closed the Oakhurst Head Start location, along with the Madera Sunrise center.
“The Board reviewed and considered the information provided by staff and parents that came to advocate for the Oakhurst center,” says Maritza Gomez, Director of the Head Start program in Madera. “The Board decided to give the center an opportunity to remain open for another year.”
Gomez says the proposed budget and resulting closure was initially recommended due to the center’s perceived inability to find income-eligible families. The center serves children starting at age three and has been established in Oakhurst for about 20 years. When news broke last week that the site was in jeopardy, the concern of community members manifested in a petition stating opposition to the proposed budget. The online petition received over 200 signatures, and more were obtained in a written petition.
Head Start Parent Policy Council (PPC) member Trisha Poffenberger traipsed down to Madera for the Thursday night meeting, along with Ashley and Patrick Ratzlaff and Kimberly Vinson. Vinson printed out the petition with its signatures and comments, as proof of the community’s desire to keep the center open. Also in attendance were Oakhurst Head Start teacher Donna Billington and Family Advocate Joan Holmstrom, along with others including a Madera Unified special ed teacher who was in favor of the center staying open, and Maru Sanchez who provides support services to Head Start families.
On arrival, the foothills contingent was met with kindness and respect, Poffenberger says, given bottled water and led to their seating. While the first ten minutes of the meeting were set aside for public comment, more time was available later on for public discussion, and an open dialogue ensued.
“It was intense being in front of the Board,” Poffenberger recounts. Among other points, she explained that with five preschools in the area, three are private pay and cost between $180 and $500 per month per child, whereas the federally-funded Head Start program is free to families who qualify. “The last thing the mountains need is to lose something,” the PPC member stated to the Board. “I’m here to tell you that I’m speaking up for my community.”
Had it passed, the proposed budget would have closed two centers of the 14 currently in operation in Madera/Mariposa counties, enabling the other locations to add one more day to their schedule and possibly giving teachers a raise, though at the expense of the Oakhurst location. Instead, only the Madera Sunrise center will close for now. No one from Sunrise attended the Board meeting.
“I know teachers are underpaid for what they do,” says Poffenberger, “but taking away services from the mountain community is not the answer. It’s not just about our kids, it’s about all the other children here and the children of the future.”
With a Head Start center in North Fork, and one in Mariposa, the only alternative for many families would be a 40 to 50 minute drive for preschool. For now, that’s not a concern, as it’s anticipated the Executive Board of CAP-MC will readily confirm the newest proposal.
“When the meeting was over, CAP-MC Executive Director Mattie Mendez walked us out, shook my hand and congratulated me,” says Poffenberger, who admits to having been anxious over the outcome. “Ashley and I had major tears in our eyes. We just made a mess of work for the Regional MADERA/Mariposa Head Start, who now have to rework the budget, which I apologized for. But Mattie said ‘good job’ and that I was doing exactly what a parent representative is expected to do. I feel humbled. Now, we need to put our flyers where our mouths are.”
Director Gomez agrees that this is the time for those in favor of Oakhurst Head Start to make sure the community is aware that spots are available to income-eligible families, and those spots need to be filled.
“On behalf of Oakhurst staff, CAP-MC staff, and Board of Directors, we would like for all the people who advocated to keep the center open, to help with recruitment and referrals,” Gomez requests. “In order to keep the center open, we need the children and families that want to register and attend the program.”
For information regarding eligibility and registration requirements, please contact Oakhurst Head Start located at 40094 Indian Springs Road. Phone (559) 658.8171
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