SHORTCHANGED

For years now, the Human Development Corp. has taken in millions of tax dollars to provide Head Start services for 2,500 of the city's low-income children. It has never come close. And the problems just begin there.

Funded by federal money, Head Start has always been administered by local nonprofit agencies, and over time, as other War on Poverty programs have withered away, Head Start, for the most part, has thrived. Former President George Bush boosted federal funding for Head Start, as did President Bill Clinton. Since its inception, Head Start has served more than 16 million children; about $4 billion is now spent to serve nearly 800,000 children each year, including 15,000 in Missouri. Nevertheless, federal estimates show the program is serving only two out of every five eligible children.The HHS's Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the local grants nationwide, has become increasingly aggressive about terminating local contracts with nonprofit agencies that fail to meet goals. Of 1,500 local providers in the country, like HDC, 100 have lost their grant money since 1994.For HDC, a private nonprofit agency that administers Head Start in the city of St. Louis, the program brought $11.6 million in federal dollars last year.

HDC's most recent problems began with a visit to the agency's headquarters by an HHS team in April 1997 as part of its regularly scheduled three-year performance review. HDC received enough funding to serve 2,519 children at the 63 Head Start centers in St. Louis -- 23 of which are operated by the Archdiocese of St. Louis through a contract with HDC.

The list of problems the team found during its 1997 visit were extensive.

The abandoned HDC-run Head Start classroom at Wesley House.
Jennifer Silverberg
The abandoned HDC-run Head Start classroom at Wesley House.
Ruth A. Smith, HDC executive director: "I didn’t want this job, to tell you the truth."
Ruth A. Smith, HDC executive director: "I didn’t want this job, to tell you the truth."

First were the low number of children enrolled in the program and the low attendance rates of those children. Given that HHS knows it is reaching only 40 percent of the children eligible nationally, the federal agency is understandably adamant about ensuring that tax dollars are not being wasted by slots that remain unfilled. At the time of the review, HDC's total enrollment was short by 23 percent, with fewer than 2,000 children enrolled. The agency was supposed to keep a waiting list of applications for children above the 2,500 level -- but its list contained the names of children too young for the Head Start program.

Of those children who were enrolled in the program, many were not attending regularly. In 1996, the attendance rate was 68 percent; in 1997, it was 60 percent. Federal regulations require that Head Start providers ensure an 85 percent attendance rate. When attendance falls below that rate, teachers are supposed to contact parents and provide support services, particularly when a child has four or more consecutive unexcused absences. HDC was failing to do so.

In fact, HDC was failing to keep parents involved, a key part of Head Start, by neglecting to make the routine two home visits to ensure that parents remain active in their children's education.

When it came to disabled children, HDC fell short again. Only 5.8 percent of the children enrolled were disabled; the federal government requires 10 percent. HDC was making no concerted effort to recruit disabled children. In fact, eight disability consultants paid by HDC were unqualified to test for and evaluate disabilities in kids already enrolled.

There were problems in the classroom. Three teachers did not meet the minimal criteria set out by Head Start regulations. Health education was not regularly included in daily lesson plans, and parents were not offered first-aid training or information on preventive health and safety practices -- part of Head Start's mission to provide health services and strengthen parenting skills.

HDC's handling of money didn't measure up, either. The agency did not break down expenses as administrative or program-related, so there was no way to tell whether the agency's administrative costs were excessive. HDC did not appear to have adequate control -- or accountability -- over its funds, property and other assets. There were "improper charges" to the Head Start program.

So in August 1997, HHS sent HDC a letter informing the St. Louis agency of the nature of the problems that had been discovered. HDC was asked to submit a plan to fix the problems and told that the deficiencies needed to be corrected within a year. HDC prepared a "quality improvement plan," but it did not satisfy HHS officials, who said the proposed plan lacked the kind of comprehensive approach needed to fix the problems. A follow-up visit to HDC was scheduled for June 1998.

Things only got worse.

The June 1998 visits turned up more problems -- and the earlier ones hadn't been corrected. HHS officially designated HDC as "high risk." Enrollment had fallen to even lower levels: HDC was underenrolled by 1,148 in October 1997. Then things improved a bit; by January 1998, HDC was 849 short. Two months later, enrollment hit 1,900 -- about the same level that the review team found in April 1997 but still 600 short. A waiting list of potential Head Start children did not exist.

A random review of files showed that Head Start workers, in 30 percent of cases, were failing to determine whether the children met the program's income qualifications. Federal rules require at least 90 percent of those enrolled to be at or below federal poverty guidelines. In some instances, the agency had enrolled children who were 2 years old and too young for Head Start.

When the HHS team looked at the files of 24 students, it found that in 21 cases, teachers had never conducted the required follow-up visits with parents to get feedback about the program.

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