Franklin County’s Head Start program, which a few months ago looked doomed to leave the county in the fall, may well be relocating to Apalachicola.

The packed audience, complete with Head Start parents and children, burst into cheers following a unanimous vote Tuesday evening by Apalachicola city commissioners to approve a proposal from the task force working to keep Head Start here.

That proposal, presented by Michaelin Watts, chair of the task force, calls for housing Head Start in the Sixth Street Recreation Center as an interim measure for the next year. After that, the plan is to locate a permanent site in a wing of the Van Johnson Municipal Complex.

While the vote by city commissioners marks a major victory for the task force in securing space for a program that was about to be moved to Leon County for the fall, it does not fully resolve all the issues, which are expected to be addressed in the coming weeks between the task force and Head Start officials.

In her remarks to city commissioners, Watts outlined a busy last six weeks for the volunteer task force, dating back to when she and others active in supporting early education learned Head Start would be leaving the county.

In mid-April, Tim Center, CEO of the Capital Area Community Action Agency, which administers Head Start for the county, announced his agency’s board had voted to move the county’s 37 slots, for children ages 3 to 5, to Tallahassee.

Center said the decision was made after the school district decided it needed the two classrooms that this year were set aside at no cost for Head Start, for the school’s kindergarten, first and second graders next fall. This meant Head Start would no longer have access to free transportation to a central location in Eastpoint, and would have to find rental space either in Apalachicola, Carrabelle or Eastpoint.

In addition, Center cited problems with hiring enough qualified staff, student attendance and parental involvement, as reasons for his agency’s decision.

Watts, who founded Bring Me A Book Franklin, a local outreach for encouraging reading at a young age and on into middle and high school, said news of Capital Area’s decision led her and others to mobilize.

“As a response we were outraged at the thought of Head Start leaving,” she said. “We have worked for many years to help children from birth through kindergarten, in these important years for developing the brain.”

At a May 4 gathering at the Bring Me A Book Franklin offices at the Van Johnson Municipal Complex, Center told the task force he was open to reversing a decision to move Head Start out of the county.

“He very quickly saw our determination and our passion,” Watts told commissioners, as she stood alongside her husband David. “What he saw as barriers, we saw as challenges. He had very little hope for finding people in Franklin County and to solve the problems of transportation and food service.”

David Watts said the long-term goal is to house the Head Start program in a wing of the Johnson complex.

“There are six rooms mainly used for storage right now. A couple of people would have to move their offices,” he said. “ A fair amount of work would need to be done with emphasis on health and safety.”

Michaelin Watts said Capt. Robert Bialas, program manager of Head Start’s District IV regional office in Atlanta, Georgia, which must approve the transfer of slots, has been “very helpful and supportive. He’s made it clear he’s interested in keeping the slots here. He has not yet okayed their transfer.”

She said Bialas sent Bruce Chandler, a facilities specialist, to examine the sites and that he is expected to make his report this week. In addition, she said the task force has lined up architect Warren Emo to do the work pro bono, as well as a volunteer plumber, electrician, and carpenter.

“There is an urgency dictated by the timeline,” Michaelin Watts told city commissioners. “According to Center we have to have a facility identified by June 16, and have it ready by early July for the start of school in early August.”

David Watts said the Sixth Street rec center made sense as an interim facility, since it was one large space that wouldn’t be harmed by the creation of a temporary dividing wall, and needed limited work on the bathrooms. He said playground equipment better suited for older children would have to be fenced off, and that replacement playground equipment was available from a Bainbridge, Georgia pre-school that recently shut down.

“Their teams were very pleased with what they saw,” he said.

The task force offered up a sample of individuals who spoke out in favor of the Head Start program.

Marie Marshall, an experienced advocate for early childhood education, said securing parental involvement is a challenge because many are “families that struggle to put food on their tables.

“Children are the hope of our world and our town here,” she said. “We’re hoping that all of you will look favorably on our efforts to keep Head Start here.

Andrew Butler, a single dad for a 4-year-old Head Start daughter who is now graduating to kindergarten, said the program has been “a huge benefit to me. She’s made connections and bonds that will go on throughout our entire life. It’s been so tremendous; I’ve watched her grow socially, watched her grow academically. She’s sucked up everything.”

Butler said his daughter is writing her name, and recognizing letters, shapes and colors, that show she’s advancing rapidly. “She’s a year or two ahead. I am tremendously happy,” he said. “The children coming up really, really need this.”

Valentina Webb, co-chair of the task force, said she has learned much from her 30 years working with the Florida Department of Corrections

“If we assist these children today we won’t have to take care of them tomorrow. We won’t have to feed, clothe and shelter them if we provide a quality education today,” she said.

Karen Kessel, youth librarian at Margaret Key Apalachicola Municipal Library, said her subcommittee had generated a list of 13 individuals who meet or exceed the requirements of Head Start, which addresses a major sticking point in Center’s argument for Head Start’s staffing limitations in the county. She said she has received a commitment from the Franklin County Schools to continue providing meals to Head Start children, just as they have over the past year.

Mayor Van Johnson, who was an active member of the task force, praised the task force for their work, and urged passage of the measure to offer space. “This is the first time I’ve seen this much community support to serve the kids of this community,” he said.

Prior to the vote, Crawfordville's Charlene Lanier, who chairs the board for Capital Area, offered mixed feelings about the future of Head Start in the county.

“The community’s come together in an awesome way and I commend them. Our children are our future,” she said, adding that she had agreed to step down from her board position to direct the county program, if need be.

“I’m willing to back you a 100 percent,” Lanier said.

But, she continued, her main concern is finances, noting that Capital Area had no funds to refurbish sites in need of conforming to Head Start’s standards.

Lanier also stressed that staff and student attendance is critical if the program is going to succeed.

“If staff doesn’t show up for work, or if students don’t show up and we don’t have 85 percent participation every day, we don’t get funding,” she said.

The mayor sternly questioned Lanier about her reasons for showing up at the 11th hour, and she responded by saying that she hadn’t been invited to earlier meetings.

When asked about what position she held with Capital Area, she replied that “I’m Tim Center’s boss,” prompting the mayor to reply “Now you have our attention.”

“We don’t see barriers here,” said Johnson, as he redirected the discussion towards the limited issue of whether or not the city would approve the use of its space.

Representatives of the complex’s mental health and substance abuse outreach programs raised questions about how their programs would interact with Head Start, and asked that space be found for their offices in another wing of the complex.

City officials assured them that this would be addressed. “Nobody will be displaced out of the facility, just relocated,” said Johnson.