New facility a sign of Head Start's bright future in V.I.

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ST. THOMAS - Construction is under way on a brand new Head Start facility in Frederiksted that will provide preschool education to 200 of the territory's neediest children.

Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch said the program is strong and continues to provide an important role in shaping the future of the territory.

A recently published Inspector General's audit of the program - which found a lack of documentation may have unfairly impacted needy children on the Head Start waiting list - presented a narrow view of the situation, according to Finch.

The audit looked at a sample of 100 case files from 2010 and found a number of deficiencies. Since then, Human Services staff has been retrained, and the systems have been tightened to meet all federal standards, Finch said.

The territory's program is in good standing with the federal government, evidenced by the $3 million grant it gave to the territory to build a brand new Head Start facility, according to Finch.

The new facility

Federal and local funding, totalling almost $4 million, has been provided for the construction of a brand new Head Start facility on the Claude O. Markoe Elementary School campus in Frederiksted. About $1 million comes from local funding, obtained by reprogramming last year's Human Services budget.

The new building will have 10 classrooms, each with a covered porch; two bathrooms - one handicapped accessible; and an extra art sink. The building will have its own entrance and parking lot.

The facility will be air-conditioned and have a commercial kitchen, community meeting space, offices and adult bathrooms.

Seven existing Head Start locations in the surrounding area - most of which are rental properties - will be folded into the new facility, Human Services Administrator of Pre-School Services Diane Jeffers said.

The department wants to build a playground for the new facility, but does not yet have the funding.

"We very much want to do a natural playground, and we're hoping for donations," Finch said.

Finch said it is more cost-effective to have one larger facility with resources and staff under one roof. Additionally, the federal government did not want to fund the renovation of properties that did not belong to the V.I. government, he said.

When complete, the new Head Start building will be available to use as a storm shelter, Finch said.

Contractor AT Construction should have the project finished by November, according to Finch. The department will need a few months to move in furniture and equipment and get ready, but it expects to have students there when they get back from Christmas break in January.

"Frederiksted is the lowest-income part of the Virgin Islands, and we're able to give them something really nice," Finch said.

The department also is getting federal funding to renovate the Head Start space at the Juanita Gardine School in Christiansted, which will be able to then absorb two existing sites in that area.

The program

Head Start is a federal program that is operated using federal and local funds by the V.I. Human Services Department. It was begun in the 1960s as a way to give a "head start" to poor children, preparing them for school.

"The overall goal of Head Start is to be an anti-poverty program," Finch said. "There was a realization that children from poor households tended to be behind when they started school."

If students start out behind, they will stay behind and are far more likely to drop out of school before graduation, Finch said. This continues the poverty cycle, because workers without education do not have the earning potential to move themselves out of poverty, he said.

In the territory, the program serves 894 children - ages 3 to 5 - in 14 Head Start sites on St. Croix, eight on St. Thomas and one on St. John.

Every Head Start program is required to provide a minimum 20 percent local match to the federal funding.

For Fiscal Year 2015, the program is expecting to get $7,869,931 from the basic Head Start grant. In addition, the local program gets $530,000 to feed the students from U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The proposed budget for the local match portion is $3,127,115, but the final budget has not yet been approved.

More than a pre-school

"Head Start goes far beyond just what happens in the classroom," Finch said.

The program focuses on including parents in the child's education and pays attention to the health care and nutrition of the child, according to Finch.

"It's a whole-person program," he said.

Breakfast, lunch and snacks are provided to feed the children enrolled in Head Start.

Assistant Human Services Commissioner Carla Benjamin said as a part of the Head Start program a social services aide is assigned to each child to help parents develop a family plan for that child's education. The employee also tracks the student's progress and will notice whether there is a change in attendance, hygiene, social interactions or development and make referrals if needed.

A mental health professional performs assessments for students when they come in and is available to deal with any issues that come up while a child is enrolled, Benjamin said.

The Head Start program also has developed a program for fathers and male role models to get them actively involved.

Special needs students

The Head Start program is 100 percent inclusive, with developmentally disabled and physically disabled students learning alongside their peers.

Each Head Start grantee must fill 10 percent of its enrollment with children with disabilities who need special education and related services.

One of the Inspectors General's audit findings was that the 10 percent threshold was not being met during the 2010 audit period.

Jeffers said the year of the audit, the Head Start program actually had 12 percent enrollment of suspected special needs students. However, by the end of the year, not all of them had received an Individualized Education Plan from the V.I. Education Department, so they were not counted, she said.

"Those IEPs are the responsibility of the Department of Education. We just had not completed that process during the school year," Jeffers said.

Finch explained that Head Start recruits special needs children from the V.I. Health Department's Infants and Toddlers Early Intervention Program.

"We recruit that child and say that child counts toward the disability minimum," Finch said. "If the Education Department doesn't determine they need an IEP, then that child doesn't count for us anymore. For example, a child might be delayed for various reasons, but later catch up. It's a bit of a fluid process."

The audit

The joint report was written by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' and the Department of the Interior's Offices of Inspectors General. The purpose of the report was to review the V.I. Human Services Department processes for determining Head Start eligibility in the territory.

The report found that based on the sample of 100 children enrolled in 2010, about one in 10 received more priority selection points than they should have, potentially placing them in the Head Start program ahead of needier children on the program's waiting list.

Finch said the crux of the audit's finding had to do with homeless children. A child who is homeless is automatically bumped to the top of the waiting list and deemed the highest priority for selection.

The audit report said the students who were given such priority did not have enough documentation in their files to justify it. Finch said if a child is staying in a shelter, it is relatively easy to get a letter saying the child is homeless and deserves the priority status for Head Start.

However, if a child's family is living in a car, or on the street, or staying temporarily with friends or relatives, there is no paper trail to include in a file, Finch said. That does not make them any less homeless, he said.

Finch said since the audit was done, Human Services has developed a ERSEA committee - which looks at eligibility, recruitment, selection, enrollment and attendance - for the Head Start program. The committee meets monthly to review any issues.

"Since then, we've trained management and senior leadership and had staff become ERSEA certified," Finch said.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email

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