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Delay in South LA Head Start schools opening frustrates parents

Harvesha Knight plays with her children Darniyah Davis and Darryl Jr. Davis. Harvesha is pursuing her nursing degree, but has had to put off school because her local preschool hasn't opened its doors this school year.
Harvesha Knight plays with her children Darniyah Davis and Darryl Jr. Davis. Harvesha is pursuing her nursing degree, but has had to put off school because her local preschool hasn't opened its doors this school year.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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A month into the school year, the classroom doors remain closed for 700 young children in south Los Angeles County. Head Start preschools in Compton, Lynwood and Paramount have been taken over by non-profit agency, Volunteers of America (VOA).

The transition between the administering agencies occurred over the summer. In June, the federal government awarded VOA the grant to take over from the Community Development Institute, another non-profit that had been running the sites for the previous three years.

Frustrated parents are calling VOA daily, demanding to know when school will open. VOA spokesman Orlando Ward cannot give a date. He explains that his organization must comply with many federal regulations before it reopens the preschools.

From “parent orientations and home visits,” Ward explained, his staff is busy, “securing all the state licensing that is required to operate Head Start in this area.”

VOA is also hiring completely new staffs for all its preschool sites. The non-profit that used to run the preschool laid off teachers and aides who staffed these schools last year. Some of them had decades of experience.

The union that represents Head Start employees, SEIU Local 99, has been pushing to have teachers rehired. “The only reason folks were given for losing their jobs was that CDI was no longer their employer," union representative Terry Carter said.

"They were encouraged to re-apply for the centers where they had been working.” Carter added that "VOA has interviewed fewer than one-forth of the folks who have applied for their jobs. And they have hired fewer than 10 percent.”

Parents are fuming too. Many had already gone through the enrollment and eligibility process for their child in the previous school year, and are now being asked to do it all again.

“To enroll my child, I had to get the paperwork from the school — the dental records, immunization and physical records. Then you have to take that to the doctor. But first you have to make an appointment at the doctor’s office. Then you have to go to the dentists office, make an appointment for that... then you have to take it back to the school," said mother Tamara Jones. "Once you take it back to the school you have to have all your income, proof of residence, and that was sufficient enough for enrollment.“

For low-income parents like Jones, a single mother working two jobs, this means missing time at work.

Another Compton mother, Harvesha Knight, has her 4-year-old, Daryl Junior, in tow as she tries to figure out when his preschool, Small World, might reopen. She is one year away from getting her certification to be a licensed vocational nurse, but she's missing school to look after him. For Knight, making sure her son does not miss out on his education is more important than finishing hers.

“I have to be his teacher now,” she said. “I have to teach him how to spell his name. He already know his 1-2-3s and ABCs, but other stuff that he would learn from school, I have to teach him.”

As the days drag on, it's unclear when the schools might open. Parents and teachers are putting pressure on VOA to expedite the process, and to hire back their beloved teachers and classroom aides.

It doesn’t have to be this way, said one teacher, who didn’t want to give her name because she feared retribution for speaking out. “When we transitioned from our previous employer to CDI, it was a smooth transition," she said. "Under this transition, I think they felt like the community was too poor, wasn’t going to stand up and fight back.”

VOA’s Orlando Ward asked patience from parents and teachers, saying his agency is ensuring they do everything by the book for “the longer term good of the children.”

Clarification: We removed the reference to VOA being a new non-profit. Although VOA is new to the area and the school system, it was founded in 1896.