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For years, the big basement room at the nonprofit Wesley House in North St. Louis served as a classroom for the Head Start program, where on weekday mornings and afternoons, 3- and 4-year-old children clambered down the steps inside the brick building, hung their coats in cubbyholes and took their seats in the miniature plastic chairs around kid-size tables. Their hours were spent learning songs, hearing stories, creating art and eating nutritious meals.
The cubbyholes are empty now, and so, largely, is the classroom. A dozen brown boxes are piled in the center of the room, but other remnants of the Head Start program are still scattered in disarray: three red tricycles, a yellow Little Tikes shopping cart and petite wooden versions of a sink, stove and refrigerator, as well as the tables, chairs and colored rugs.
The room looks as if it was abandoned in a hurry, with the movers leaving behind anything that wasn't easily portable. And, in a sense, it was.
The classroom was run by the Human Development Corp. of Metropolitan St. Louis, and in October HDC officials told the state they didn't intend to renew that location's child-care license, which was to expire on Nov. 30. But HDC didn't bother to tell its landlord, Wesley House, that it was closing the classroom and moving out. Wesley House executive director Terry Jones says the only reason he found out about the closing was that he called HDC in late November. He was told they were leaving the building because they didn't like the color of the walls. Apparently HDC wanted white walls; the room had been painted a robin's-egg blue. Jones was flummoxed.So were state child-care officials, when they made an impromptu visit on Dec. 3 and found that the Head Start classroom was still operating there -- albeit without a license. HDC was told the location was operating illegally, and the next day the teachers and students were gone.
"Everybody kind of had a suspicion that HDC was having difficulties," Jones says. "We recognized some of their short sides -- caseload, revenue and the problems they were having." Still, his organization was supposed to receive a 30-day notice under the terms of HDC's lease.
"There was no notice this was going to occur," Jones says. "It wasn't done very businesslike."
What seemed unbusinesslike to Jones was business as usual at HDC. And the shuttered classroom at Wesley House -- which regularly fell short of its capacity of 17 children -- is a symptom of the many maladies that have plagued HDC for years.
For starters, HDC has been accepting more than $11 million per year from the federal government to serve about 2,500 children but has yet to come even close to serving that many. Two years ago, it was more than 1,000 kids short -- in a city that has one of the highest childhood-poverty rates in the nation. Estimates indicate that more than 5,000 city children are eligible for Head Start.
There are other problems at HDC: The agency has repeatedly failed to pay its bills on time. It has overdrawn its bank account by a half-million dollars and finished the last two years more than $300,000 in debt. Meanwhile, HDC board members, staffers and others have spent more than $100,000 a year attending conventions and seminars in cities like Honolulu and San Francisco.
For the past three years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been unhappy with the way HDC manages the city's Head Start program -- attempting last year to take away the program entirely. Sagging enrollment, low attendance rates and HDC's inability to oversee its finances were just a few of the problems cited.
Michael Kharfen, an HHS spokesman in Washington, D.C., calls HDC's problems some of the most "egregious" in the nation and ones that raise fundamental questions about the agency's ability to manage a program in which millions of tax dollars are at stake.
The real losers, Kharfen says, are the hundreds of children who are denied Head Start services as a result.
"We don't have unlimited resources," Kharfen says. "We can't serve every kid that is eligible. They are not enrolling kids we know are out there. Those kids are being deprived the benefit of a Head Start program."
Head Start was launched in 1965 in the midst of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty as a free summer program to help prepare disadvantaged kids for public school. Its common-sense approach had such widespread appeal that by its second year more than 700,000 children were enrolled.
It was a preschool and more, at a time when preschools were far rarer than they are today. In addition to learning activities designed to prepare the kids for kindergarten, the 3- and 4-year-olds got free immunizations and dental care and were taught such basics as hand-washing and teeth-brushing and given nutritious meals. Classroom time meant a range of activities -- sitting in a circle listening to stories, creating artwork, playing with blocks, pretending housekeeping duties or exercising on an outdoor jungle gym.
One key component, which has helped the success of the program, has been Head Start's emphasis on working with the parents, most of whom live below the poverty level. Parents have always been involved in running the program. Some get to work their way up and become Head Start teachers themselves. Head Start staff can also refer families to needed social services.
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