District outlines plan to outsource more Head Start seats

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

One issue that has mostly flown under the radar in the frenzy over school closings: The District is planning to privatize nearly 2,000 additional Head Start seats, saying that without this move the number of children getting pre-K services — already just a fraction of those eligible — would shrink precipitously.

The District’s reason, as with almost everything, is money. It is losing between $70 million and $80 million in federal Title I grants next year, about $17 million in additional federal funds because of the sequester, and more millions in state Head Start money. The District-run Head Start sites, which use certified teachers, cost $3,400 more per child — $11,700 vs. $8,300, according to a presentation by Renee Queen Jackson, deputy chief of early childhood education, at the School Reform Commission on Thursday night.

The difference is due entirely to the higher salaries paid to the teachers, she said when questioned by Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky.

Queen Jackson said that 1,830 of 6,182 Head Start slots are now provided by private partner agencies, with the rest provided by the District. "We propose to more than double that," she said, adding that keeping the current ratio would result in 500 fewer available slots.

"The service reduction would be a tremendous loss to the children, families, and communities in Philadelphia," Queen Jackson said.

She maintained that quality won’t be compromised, but several teachers and parents from Head Start programs forcefully begged to differ. They called most private providers "day care centers," that often don’t even require a bachelor’s degree for their teachers.

Several people from the Trinidad Head Start site in North Philadelphia recounted the successes of graduates, the family atmosphere, and the support of many partners. They said that turning it over to a private provider would destroy a community institution.

"Are the children in this neighborhood worth so little in your quest to save money?" asked teacher assistant Bridget Anderson. "The fact that you would close this school without knowing anything about it shows poor judgment."

Christine Palermo, a teacher at the Head Start program at Fulton Elementary in Germantown, pointed out that the District was closing 17 Head Start classrooms in Northwest Philadelphia. "I understand the need for reform, but I am having a hard time understanding how you are going about the reform. You are hitting the most economically challenged communities the hardest. Those are the communities that need us most."

Among the critics of the change were representatives of the Head Start Policy Council, which is made up of parents and community representatives and functions as a governing partner with the District for the program.

"We understand the restructuring process and the possibility of having to outsource services; however, we are asking for funding from any venue which will allow us to minimize the impact while saving jobs," said Andrea Chaney, a Head Start parent and chair of the council’s budget and finance committee. "We must assure that we are not sacrificing quality in saving quantity."

Head Start, an initiative started in 1965 as one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, was designed not just to deliver high-quality early education, but also as a community development program that provided jobs while involving low-income families in their children’s schooling. Many parents, mostly mothers, worked in the centers and went on to further their own educations and lift themselves out of poverty.

In a PowerPoint, Queen Jackson presented information indicating that students in partner sites and those in District-run Head Start programs showed similar results in early-literacy indicators. The District is putting out Requests for Proposals to current partners to expand and is now seeking additional partners, she said, giving assurances that the employees of the partner agencies would get District-run training. The goal is to have at least 60 percent of the providers with at least three stars (out of five) on the state rating system known as Keystone Stars, she said. The stars measure both financial and educational factors.

Christie Balka, director of child care and budget policy at the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), was the only person to speak in favor of the District’s plan. She said that quality pre-K is now available to only one-third of the children who need it, and she doesn’t want to see that number shrink.

Balka said that she had some concerns about maintaining quality, but that "PCCY supports the restructuring."