ST. PETERSBURG — The Head Start program has been around since 1965, but its history in Pinellas County has some gaps. This school year, however, the program is back and hoping to expand.
After two years on hiatus, Head Start and Early Head Start are operating in 15 centers throughout the county, with hundreds of children on waiting lists. The federal programs provide education, child care and health services for low-income families.
“At my old school there were bullies, and I would stay up all night,” said 4-year-old Jamal Tibbett Jr., one of 199 children in the Connie Momarro Head Start Center in St. Petersburg. “There are lots of friends here and lots of blocks.”
From 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Head Start works with kids 5 and younger in an educational program and also provides free meals, speech and language therapy and dental, vision and general health screenings. The program aims to serve not only the child, but also the whole family, Momarro Center Director Joy Williams said. Head Start will pay for parents to go back to school for a GED, and teachers travel to students’ homes to give parents progress reports, lessons on how to work with their child, and talk about any additional needs a family may have.
Early childhood education has become more critical in Pinellas schools in light of Juvenile Welfare Board statistics that estimate about one-third of students who enter kindergarten aren’t ready. Elementary schools have been slipping, with 16 of them among the state’s 300 lowest performers in reading preparation tests. Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg was deemed the worst in the state, and the school district has been criticized for a lack of parental involvement in its most challenged schools.
“From the very beginning we try to get the parent involved because success for a child is going to be dependent on the partnership between home and school, so we set the stage for that from the very beginning,” said Janet Schulmeister, deputy director of Lutheran Services Florida. “It’s a huge need in this community, and it starts with building that trust with our teachers.”
The search for new funding for Pinellas’ Head Start program began last year, after a 2011 audit by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that money had been mishandled and that previous Pinellas Head Start executives, under the Pinellas Opportunity Council, had hired family and friends.
The program already was reeling from federal budget cuts that took more than $400 million from Head Start programs nationwide. In Pinellas, the cuts took about 200 students out of the program, and in Hillsborough they resulted in staff cuts and eliminated playgrounds and bus services.
After lobbying U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and others, Head Start’s funding was restored across the country in 2013, and an additional $1 billion was added to previous levels.
The Pinellas County School Board applied for a $12 million grant to run Head Start and Early Head Start but lost to the Tampa-based nonprofit Lutheran Services Florida, which has overseen Head Start in southeast Florida and Hillsborough for more than 30 years. The board and Lutheran Services worked together to open the Lew Williams Early Childhood Center on Aug. 7 after about four years of planning.
The Williams center caters to those who would qualify for Head Start but is the product of five other local education agencies serving 104 students ages 1 to 4 at the Pinellas Technical Education Centers’ St. Petersburg campus. The school district also is joining Head Start by providing speech pathologists to work with students at its centers.
“Sometimes we all get this bum rap that collaboration is really difficult. Well, we’ve proven all of the critics wrong. We can do this and be very, very successful,” Superintendent of Schools Michael Grego said.
This year Head Start is hoping to work with more community centers and local businesses to expand services, said Shawn Reid, vice president of operations.
The new federal Head Start budget includes $500 million for expansion programs and $250 million in grants. Pinellas will know in December whether it will be awarded any of that money for its Early Head Start program, which could provide for 72 more families.
The funding isn’t a constant. Grantees have to reapply for Head Start funding every five years, Schulmeister said. School board member René Flowers, the youngest of 12 children, said she spent her childhood in a St. Petersburg Head Start program where her mother was a teacher. Now her daughter is working with Head Start as an instructor.
“I still remember to this day the three teachers who worked there,” Flowers said. “Those individuals taught me so much and resound in me today and are absolutely the reason why I am where I am today.”