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Preschool panic

Parents panicked this month after being told their children's Head Start program would shut down Nov. 30. (KATV)

The Head Start program was created to get young children from low-income families ready for school. More than 10,000 kids in Arkansas attend 22 Head Start programs. They're invaluable for many families. However, this month, parents were told three preschools were shutting down in a matter of weeks.

When parent Jessica Patterson picked up her daughter from the St. Peter's Head Start program in Pine Bluff on November 5, she was given a letter informing her the last day of preschool would be November 30.

"We had received a letter that the school was closing down, and they just gave us a brief, not even that long for us to find another school for our child to go to," said Patterson.

The letter, encourages parents to ask that the program not be discontinued, and ends with an ominous warning, "There are currently no childcare slots available at any local facility."

"Hard-working parents need their children at school while they provide for them, so I just don't understand," said Patterson.

"It put me in like a panic. I'm like what am I going to do now?" recalled parent Shakel Pitts whose son attends the David Vaughn Head Start Program in Pine Bluff.

"They was shutting all the head start programs down," Pitts said. "Right, that's what I was getting," agreed Patterson.

Pitts was asked to sign a petition to continue the grant funding to the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County EOC which operates the Head Start programs in Jefferson and Grant counties. The EOC was funded with a 5-year grant from the federal government. After they got the news, parents tried desperately to get answers from the EOC, but both Pitts and Patterson said there multiple phone calls and messages were not returned.

KATV also called the EOC more than a dozen times over the course of several days and left multiple messages. No one returned our calls either, so we took our questions to the federal government, the Deparmtnent of Health and Human Services which funds Head Start with grants. Through a series of Freedom of Information requests we learned that this sudden school closure wasn't sudden at all, and it was not a closure.

KATV obtained an email which was sent to EOC Executive Director Anthony Powell on April 10, 2017. It informs Powell that program failed a 2016 classroom observation and, as a result, doesn't automatically qualify for more grant funding.

"They been knowing since 2017, and they just now telling us this month," said Patterson.

We obtained a copy of that evaluation and learned the program scored in the lowest 10% of Head Start programs in the country for emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support. Patterson says she was never told her child's school was failing. The EOC was allowed to compete for a new grant, but HHS ultimately denied the application. Instead, HHS gave the money to the Community Services Office of Hot Springs and Garland County (CSO).

In a statement to KATV, HHS said CSO was the best applicant to operate the Head Start program in Jefferson and Grant counties and that program will continue.

KATV wanted to knowhy, if the program was never going to close, just change hands, parents were told they had less than three weeks to find new child care. We went down to the EOC to find an answere. Initially, KATV was told that Powell was not there, but after we insisted on waiting for him, he came out to the lobby but refused to go on camera.

KATV asked him why parents were told the doors would be closed in a matter of weeks. He denied ever making that statement, pointing out his signature was not on the letter. KATV also asked who sent the letter and started the petition, but he said he didn't know and had no intention of investigating.

Powell said he informed the staff on October 31 that the EOC would no longer operate the program but that it would be taken over by another organization or an interim group. However, that doesn't fit with the November 5 letter sent home with parents which states staff were informed instruction would end November 30.

"They should have been more professional about it and let the parents know, instead of putting us in a panic," said Pitts.

Some parents believe the letter and petition were either reaction from misinformed staff or a scare tactic to get parents to pressure HHS to give the grant money back to EOC.

"They said it was going to close down, instead of switching companies. That's what they should have said at first," said Patterson.

KATV reached out CSO Executive Director Leslie Barnes to learn more about the plans for the facility, including how CSO plans to address the deficiencies identified in the 2016 assessment. However, CSO never responded to our multiple phone calls and email.

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