With COVID-19, will holding hands be a thing of the past? (Courtesy photo)
With COVID-19, will holding hands be a thing of the past? (Courtesy photo)

Long before the D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) central office relinquished $14 million in Head Start grant funds, some parents said they saw the proof in the pudding during what they described as the central office’s attempts to keep them unaware of key changes and neglect incidents that took place at some of the District’s more than 50 Title 1 elementary schools.

For years, through a Head Start-mandated parent policy council, parents such as Chioma Oruh had been able to express concerns and secure behavioral health support for students, along with resources for families homeless and non-English-speaking families.

Oruh said the central office’s recent decision not only jeopardizes the District’s path to universal pre-K, but threatens to dismantle what had become the most powerful parent-led watchdog of DCPS.

“You’re exposing families with less federal protection. It’s not just about the money. It’s the accountability,” said Oruh, an active Takoma Education Campus parent whose son attended Head Start between 2016 and 2018.

During that time, Oruh chaired the Subcommittee for Behavioral Health and Special Education, and briefly served as head of the Early Childhood Education Council. She said that experience revealed the difficulty of advancing the interests of nonwhite and economically disadvantaged families over that of white parents who had more political power and flexible schedules.

“There was a level of serious power at the preschool level,” Oruh told The Informer as she stressed the need for a parent council, much like what Head Start required for its grantees, in the new preschool model that DCPS chooses to adopt.

“When you get a bunch of parents in the room, you give us power and you’ll see some results,” she said. “A lot of the issues came from [DCPS officials] not bringing in the parent body. They would’ve had to work with us.”

Head Start, a federal program that has been in existence since 1965, originally started as a summer school for young people entering elementary school. It has since expanded in scope, providing millions of children across the United States with health screenings, dental checkups, and social-emotional development. Whether DCPS had been able to do that adequately became a point of contention in the 11 years since the District expanded pre-kindergarten.

So much so that, rather than risk an audit of funds, the central office decided to forego its grant, sources familiar with the process told The Informer on the condition they remain anonymous.

The fallout from the Head Start funding loss comes amid a global pandemic that has brought economic and social activity to a standstill, and D.C. public and public charter school students to their homes where they’ve engaged in distance learning programs. During the latter part of last month, parents who participated in the school lottery process, through which pre-kindergarten seats get filled, received their youngsters’ assigned schools.

In DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee’s April 15 letter to families, he said that, after conversations with Head Start earlier in the year, officials expected a 50 percent reduction in funds, due to shifting demographics within some of the Head Start programs. He later told reporters on a phone call about safety concerns stemming from instances where preschoolers wandered beyond the playground or their designated area.

Regarding to enrollment, Ferebee said that the central office’s decision wouldn’t reduce pre-kindergarten seating of 7,000 for the 2020-2021 school year. However, schools that experienced a drop in Title 1-eligible students lost some family services and instructional coaching — what amounted to more than 80 jobs.

DCPS officials said they would recoup those losses with elementary-level wraparound services and collaborations with community partners. Ferebee also revealed his intentions to align DCPS’ early child care model with the instructional model that immerses three and four-year-olds in a classroom setting rather than what’s been likened to a daycare.

Since the District first committed to expanding its pre-kindergarten offerings, education experts had heralded the city as a beacon in the national battle for universal pre-kindergarten — even as officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services raised doubts about the school system’s ability to manage Head Start funds.

A 2018 report by the Center for American Progress asserted that more mothers from low-income communities had been able to incur significant cost savings and enter the workforce since the District expanded pre-kindergarten enrollment.

With the loss of Head Start funds comes the question of how, and even if, parents can provide the money for school supplies and field trips. Even parents at Takoma EC, an upper Northwest campus with ethnic and economic diversity, admit their struggle to combat their newfound dilemma.

“You can’t take $100,000 and things [continue to] be normal,” said Marc Cevasco, a parent of a Takoma EC first grader and preschool student whose wife serves as treasurer of the school’s parent-teacher organization. “It’s going to have a tangible effect on the resources.

“We have raised a lot of money over the years to supplement things that should be provided by the school,” he said “The idea that we’re going to lose $6,000 for school supplies is a big hit and not something the [parent-teacher organization] can resolve. This is not a community where everyone can spend a couple hundred extra for add-ons to their child’s education.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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