A lack of affordable space and transportation, and a difficulty finding certified staff, have prompted closure of the county’s Headstart program, at least for the next school year.

In an April 7 letter to the parents of the 37 students currently enrolled in the program, Tim Center, CEO of the Capital Area Community Action Agency (CACAA), which administers Head Start in the county, outlined the reasons why the program for 3 to 5-year-olds will not be accepting applications for the 2017-18 school year.

“A number of factors require us to make significant changes that will impact Franklin County for an indefinite period of time,” he wrote. “This decision was not made lightly.”

In a telephone interview last week, Center said that both the board of the non-profit CACAA, as well as the policy council that governs the Head Start contract for Leon, Jefferson and Franklin counties, had voted to approve cancelling the program in Franklin County for next year.

“We have been working through this for several months, and have had conversations with Superintendent Traci Moses to figure out what decisions will be made for us and what we do in light of those decisions,” he said. “We’ll be taking at least a year off.”

In his letter, Center wrote that “a major catalyst prompting this decision” was that space would no longer be available in 2017-18 at either the Franklin County School main campus, or on the campus of the former Brown Elementary School.

“Head Start has relied greatly upon the transportation services provided by the school district to permit students from Apalachicola, Carrabelle and Eastpoint to attend Head Start,” Center wrote. CACAA has operated the Head Start program in Franklin County since 1994, and over that time, has had locations in Apalachicola, Carrabelle and Eastpoint, though not all at the same time.

In an interview Monday, Moses confirmed that growth in the district’s enrollment numbers next year would mean adding a fifth kindergarten class next year, and that with three pre-Kindergarten classes, and five classes in each of the first, second and third grades, the school would need both rooms now being used by Head Start.

“We’re completely out of space,” said Moses.

The district extended space on the campus to Head Start a couple years ago, and the program moved over from the portable classrooms that it had been using on the former Brown campus in Eastpoint.

Returning to Brown, though, isn’t an option next year, since the alternative school is moving back there, and other classroom space is needed for adult education.

Of the two portables that had been housed there, one is in poor shape, with a leaky roof and holes in the floors, and the other is needed for The Nest after-school program, Moses said.

Center made clear in the interview that the decision to move Head Start to the main campus had been a big boon to the program, which at one time had operated Head Start in both Eastpoint and Carrabelle.

“With that move came an incredible opportunity to provide a seamlessness from early childhood education to a K-12 environment, strengthened by transportation,” he said, noting that the Head Start children could ride the bus with older siblings.

“We were trying to make a very significant attempt in Franklin County to meet the needs of most of those folks eligible for our services, and at the same time we’re strengthening the entire family structure by encouraging students to come to school,” Center said.

“There’s an intangible value when little brother goes with big brother. You get a kid thinking ‘I go to school, that’s what I do.’ These are all very good things that were happening and we have a very difficult choice right now that will be temporary but is necessary," he said.

Center also made clear that transportation and available space were not the only reasons for discontinuing the program.

“To open a classroom in each of the three towns would require enough staff who have the required credentials to serve in Head Start, including a four-year degree in early childhood education and the Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential,” he wrote in his letter. “Finding qualified staff in Franklin County who meet the federal rules has been very difficult.”

Center said four of the program’s six staffers in the county -a director, two teachers, two CDAs and a family advocate – are employed under waivers from federal guidelines because they have not earned the required educational credentials.

“The way Head Start has progressively increased the requirements and credentials of the educational staff, we would need to be able to find staff who met all qualifications,” he said. “In instances where it is difficult to find those staff we have been requesting waivers of staff not having requisite re4quiremnents.

“Without transportation to a centralized site in Franklin County, we would have to shift to multiple locations and we’re having difficulty staffing within a single location now,” Center said. “Multiply that by two or three, it becomes nearly impossible.

“The issue is that when you need to hire qualified staff, that the workforce available in Franklin County is not there and that can be a challenge,” he said.

Center said Franklin County has representatives on both the CACAA board, as well as the Head Start Policy Council. He said board member Carol Barfield was unable to attend the board meeting when the decision was made, “but was aware of what we were working on,” and that Bob Shattuck was in the hospital at the time of the last Policy Council meeting when this issue was considered.

Center said CACAA’s total Head Start grant is for $4.1 million, to serve 378 children in the three counties. “With 37 students (in Franklin County), we have about $370,000 available – this is not enough to provide for three locations, plus transportation and fully staff each location,” he said.

“This is the reality, of a very deserving community that makes it very hard to fulfill federal requirements,” Center said.

He said the funds that had been expended in Franklin County will be redirected to Leon County, where about 4,000 children are eligible for the current allocation of 350 slots.

Center estimated that about 13 students will be impacted next year by the closure, since the 5-year-olds will move into Kindergarten, and the 4-year-olds into the state-funded voluntary pre-Kindergarten program at the school. Those who are 3-year-olds are being encouraged to apply for School Readiness funding from the Early Learning Coalition.

Center said he plans to answer questions from parents at a meeting slated for Thursday afternoon, April 27 in the Head Start classrooms at the school.

Sarah Wilson, parent of a Head Start 3-year-old, said she was distressed to see the program disappear next year.

“Dante likes it, he enjoys the teachers,” she said. “His vocabulary has improved, he’s potty-trained now. They do a great job helping parents with potty training. I think the teachers do a great job.”

Wilson said she thinks the closure will particularly impact working, single moms, who often don’t have the resources to pay for day care.

“I think it’s a terrible decision,” she said. “I think it’s a sign of how overlooked Franklin County is as far as resources services and programs.

“I don’t like to see programs like that just go away because people don’t feel like doing their jobs and overcoming government challenges of keeping these programs in place,” she said.