Betty Logan, president of the Anderson Grove Community Center Association, informs parents during a Thursday night meeting about efforts to prevent the community's Head Start program from closing. More than 40 parents turned out to discuss what could be done to prevent the closing of the school located just south of the Caledonia town limits. The federally funded program, which provides free educational program to children ages 3-4, is scheduled to be closed at the end of the current school year. Parents have collected more than 400 signatures on a petition to block the move. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
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March 9, 2018 10:26:48 AM
The Anderson Grove Head Start program is set to close at the end of the school year on May 24 after 34 years of operation at the former elementary school just south of the Caledonia town limits.
Eloise McClinton, executive director for the Institute for Community Services (ICS), who administers the federally funded program at 22 Head Starts in the 14 northernmost counties in the state, confirmed Thursday morning the planned closing. She cited the poor condition of the building, the cost of remodeling to comply with new regulations and a drop in attendance at the facility.
Head Start, administered and funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides free education for children ages 3 and 4 from low-income families. Five-year-olds with special needs are also eligible for the program. Head Start was founded in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."
McClinton said all children who are currently enrolled and are returning to Head Start next year would be transferred to the Coleman Head Start on the south side of Columbus, 13 miles south of Anderson Grove.
"They won't have to re-apply," she said, noting that new students can apply at Coleman as well.
Coleman currently serves 250 children, compared to 57 at Anderson Grove.
Parent: 'We're not backing down'
On Thursday evening, a group of about 40 parents gathered at the community center next to the school, determined to fight to keep their Head Start open.
"We're not going to back down," said Tim Brackin, whose 4-year-old son, Andrew, attends the school. "This is wrong. It's wrong for the parents and the kids."
Betty Logan, president of the Anderson Grove Community Association (AGCA), said the ICS is violating a number of the terms agreed upon in a 25-year lease agreement the ICS signed with the community association in 2002 to operate the Head Start program at the facility.
"First, the lease agreement says they are supposed to notify us if they plan to leave," Logan said. "We found out about this a week ago (secondhand). ... They still haven't sent us any notification, even though they are required to get written consent from the community association before they leave."
McClinton said she came to Anderson Grove to break the news to the teachers and staff in February.
"We had been looking at that facility for quite some time, starting last year," McClinton said. "We saw the enrollment declining. They had 80 children in the program last year. This year, I think, they have 57 children.
"The high upkeep of the building was something we had to consider, too. Our budget hasn't been cut, but there are some new regulations we are having to conform with that means we'll have to remodel some facilities," she added. "It's an older building. It needs a new roof and other changes. It was costing a lot to keep the facility running. So we made the decision."
McClinton said the ICS closed a Head Start in Marshal County last year.
"We are downsizing throughout the organization," she said.
Thursday night, parents disputed McClinton's claims.
"The only reason our numbers are down is because they eliminated a class," said Christopher Hayes, the president of the AGCA's fatherhood committee. "We are approved for 90 kids, so why close a class?"
Problems with the building
Logan said the ICS is responsible for maintaining the building under the terms of its lease agreement.
"She was leasing the building from us and we aren't charging her any money," Logan said. "The lease says (ICS) is responsible for the upkeep on the building and that they are required to have commercial insurance. If there was anything wrong, she was supposed to contact the insurance company to let them know what's going on. If she wasn't going to do that, she should have gotten in touch with the community association."
Hayes said there are repairs that need to be made.
"The bathroom has some leaks," he said. "The facial boards on the outside of the building, some them are rotten. There are windows that need to be caulked. Two or three need to be replaced. And the school has mold all over the outside of the building."
Logan said the AGCA and ICS re-signed the lease agreement in 2011 after the school passed inspection by the Lowndes County Building Inspection Department.
"In the past eight years, if they had problems, they should have been in touch with their insurance company or, at least, have told us about the problems, so we could help get the building back in the condition it was in 2011," Logan said.
Brackin said when he learned the building's condition was one of the reasons for ICS's decision to close to program, he called McClinton.
"I told her we had parents willing to take their time and businesses willing to donate supplies to fix the building," Brackin said. "She had nothing to say when I told her that."
Parents can also apply for the pre-K program at nearby Caledonia Elementary School.
"I don't have $325 a month to put my kid in that program," Hayes said. "Who does?"
Michell Brackin, Tim's wife, said the Caledonia program is already full.
"I had a co-worker whose child, like our son, has special needs," she said. "When I told her I was going apply at Caledonia as a back-up, she said, 'Good luck. They already have a waiting list.'"
Brackin said there is a waiting list at Coleman, too.
McClinton said that students at Anderson Grove will be bussed to Coleman, which seems to be of little consolation to the parents.
"They are 3- and 4-year olds," Logan said. "You don't bus children that young out of the area."
"Our child couldn't ride the bus," Michell said. "He has Down Syndrome and he's very active. It's too restrictive for him."
Parents said they plan to call U.S. Representative Trent Kelly's office today. In a week, the AGCA has a petition signed by more than 400 people demanding that the Head Start be kept open.
"And that's not even all of them," Logan said. "We still have a lot of petition sheets that are coming in."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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