A local task force’s push to prevent Head Start from leaving the county next fall made headway last week, securing a promise from the Tallahassee executive who directs the program that he will consider keeping it here if suitable space could be found.

Tim Center, CEO of the Capital Area Community Action Agency, which administers Head Start in the county, told a May 4 gathering at the Bring Me A Book Franklin offices at the former Apalachicola High School that he is open to reversing a decision to shift the 37 slots now in Franklin County to Tallahassee.

“My staff brought me a recommendation several months ago (to move the slots). I fought them the entire time. This is not my personal desire to do this,” he told the task force, chaired by Michaelin and David Watts, both instrumental in instituting the Bring Me A Book program several years ago in the county.

“It’s not that we don’t want to help,” Center said.

The Watts had appeared at the April 27 school board meeting, where they secured the board’s support for the task force’s efforts to keep Head Start from moving out of the county.

Superintendent Traci Moses and the school board decided earlier this year that, due to a growth in the kindergarten through second grades, they would need to use the two classrooms set aside for Head Start. In addition, without a central location on the Franklin County School campus, the district would no longer provide transportation for Head Start children.

Center told the task force last week that affordable space and transportation were not the obstacles to keeping the Head Start in the county, and that the plan is to take a year off and reexamine the county program.

“The current program has a great location, and without that location, a number of things became more difficult to fix,” he said.

Center said a difficulty in finding qualified staff, and in generating ongoing parent participation, have made it difficult for the program to meet the high standards set by Head Start.

“We (Head Start) are a canary in a coal mine,” he said, referring to larger challenges facing county educators.

Phyllis Kalifeh, president and CEO of Children’s Forum in Tallahassee; Sharon Gaskin, CEO of North Florida Child Development in Wewahitchka, and Mindy Parker, from Early Education and Care in Apalachicola, were all in hand, and each showed an interest in whether Center would be willing to delegate the 37 slots to another agency to provide care in the county, rather than shift the slots and the their funding to Leon County.

Center said delegation is an option, but said he in concerned that a new provider would face the same challenges as he has in meeting Head Start challenges.

Kalifeh expressed concern that despite Capital Area’s expressed intent to return the Head Start program to the county after a year off, that this might be unlikely to happen due to logistical and administrative restrictions. “You intent is well-meaning,” she said. “But you diffuse that money.”

The county funding comes as part of a five-year federal grant to Capital Area to provide 378 slots to Leon. Franklin and Gadsden counties. Center said he has notified representatives of Health and Human Services in Atlanta, Georgia about his plans.

The meeting opened with remarks from Mayor Van Johnson, who said the county’s once booming seafood industry once made it profitable for young people to leave school early and go to work. This has led to a situation where more highly educated and credentialed people have to be brought in from other places.

“Education has traditionally not been valued,” he said. “We have to change the culture of education.”

Center said he is looking for ways in which child care options, particularly for 3 year olds who could not enroll in the school’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program, could be supported with existing funding, or with a program of micro-loans.

Apalachicola Bay Charter School Assistant Principal Elizabeth Kirvin said her experience in helping to found the Bay Community School, which closed last year, indicates that finding sufficient child care alternatives may be difficult.

“Our area needs Head Start services,” she said. “Licensed child care is not the answer as far as Head Start slots.”

After extensive discussion about the level of staffing that would be needed to keep Head Start here, as well as the comparative salary structure, Center agreed to reconsider Capital Area’s decision, if Johnson could locate a suitable site. The mayor said efforts are ongoing to find space in Apalachicola and/or Carrabelle.

The task force plans to meet this afternoon, May 11, also at the Bring Me A Book Franklin office.