Cardella: Every Child Left Behind

This week features a guest column by Rob DeFeo. We don’t do guest columns, but I thought this was a topic best told by someone directly affected. Full disclosure — Rob is my cousin. The events are taking place in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania. Sullivan County is a beautiful place. An endless sweep of mountains. What does what’s happening in Sullivan County have to do with us in Philly? For openers, what’s happening is a fight against arbitrary bureaucracy. It’s the kind of thing that could happen to any parents. The fight is also being waged in Philadelphia. And because it involves the future of children, I’d like to think it involves all of us. Now, I’ll let Rob speak:

You’re in Marconi Plaza with your child. Talking to a friend. Distracted. You hear your kid yell. You turn and see a stranger running off with him or her. A policeman stands close by. But when you ask for help, he shrugs. There’s nothing he can do.

Nobody is kidnapping children in Sullivan County. But the bureaucracy is stealing the future of some of its children. And the government folks who are supposed to protect the education of the county’s children are standing by with their hands in their pockets. Welcome to the Sullivan County, Pennsylvania Head Start Program.

A recent decision by the Columbia Child Development Program has effectively terminated this 50-year-old institution, leaving this north central county as the only Pennsylvania county without a Head Start option. And if CCDP prevails, scores of the area’s children won’t be attending pre-school next year. The remaining facilities lack both the resources and infrastructure necessary to accommodate an increase in students.

According to county commissioners and community leaders, there’s been an appalling lack of engagement between Columbia and Sullivan County in recent years. Parents believe the fault lies with CCDP’s refusal to acknowledge the growing needs of the preschool program. Some even believe reports are being suppressed during Policy Council meetings — reports that articulate what parents believe are errors and misstatements made in CCDP’s community assessment of the county. And that’s the very document that led to termination of service.

As outrage reverberated throughout this small, quiet rural community, concerned parents quickly mobilized and formed the Head Start Action Committee. The group is designed to petition for the needs of the Head Start centers in crisis. HSAC has addressed nearly every area of center function, from community engagement to human resources, to providing necessities such as clothes and gifts during the holiday season for the kids they serve. As it prepares for the 2020 school year, HSAC has already recruited over 80 members by word of mouth and through its Facebook page.

The increasingly vocal group has proven itself a quick study, immersing itself in the 2007 Head Start Readiness Act as it becomes familiar with the intricacies of running a nonprofit. And the group has continued to put pressure on CCDP and anyone who’ll listen to their pleas for help. HASAC’s list of members includes former Head Start teachers, county commissioners, community leaders, child advocates and concerned parents from around the county. HSAC knows that time is short.

CCDP announced the closing to faculty and staff at the start of the September school year, asking them to remain silent and not inform parents until a formal announcement was made. The faculty and staff balked at the request. So, CCDP placed restrictions on staff, barring them from communicating to residents or the press. In October, CCDP filed for reorganization with Region Three in Philadelphia, an action that prohibits the school from redress until that proposal is voted on. Next, in early November, CCDP made a formal announcement and submitted its funding proposal.

By terminating services, CCDP gained complete control over the $1.903 million funding grant for Sullivan and Columbia counties. Without the need to include Sullivan County, CCDP is free to use those funds elsewhere in its budget. Meanwhile, the Sullivan county kids are left out in the cold. The Head Start mantra of LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND should now include “unless we want the money.”

Since 1964, Head Start has helped narrow the gap between the disadvantaged and privileged children. Kids entering kindergarten have been provided quality pre-school to enhance school readiness. The program focuses primarily on low-income families, disabled and homeless children, and children of disabled parents.

This is where Philadelphia comes in. Sullivan County’s legal fight takes place here…in the city’s regional office of Head Start. To date, all of HSAC’s efforts have gone for naught. Phone calls to the regional office go straight to voicemail. No one calls back. CCDP finally gave in to the direct pressure from HSAC, offering to rescind its decision and allowing the funding board to make its recommendation. But without even an acknowledgment of its phone calls, hope is fading fast for HSAC. The report in which CCDP makes its case for a viable need for Head Start gathers dust on someone’s desk unopened.

The holidays are here. Shoppers crowd the stores. Christmas music fills the air. But in Sullivan County, Scrooge is afoot. Parents worry that come next September; there will be no Head Start classes for their kids. They just want somebody to hear their case.

And the clock is ticking.