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County's Head Start Chief Reassigned to Smaller Job

June 26, 2002|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The director of Los Angeles County's Head Start program, America's largest, will be removed from his position and reassigned against his wishes--a move that has upset parents and employees.

Andrew Kennedy, 52, took over Head Start 10 years ago, at a time when the county's management and oversight were so slipshod that the federal government, which provides all the funding, threatened to strip the county of control. In the last decade, Kennedy stepped up monitoring and helped to transform a $40-million program that served 7,900 children into a $200-million system that provides care and preparation for school for nearly 25,000 children.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the county's assistant superintendent for educational services Elizabeth Sullivan wrote that Kennedy will assume a new job coordinating the fledgling School Readiness Initiative for infants and preschoolers, effective July 1. That initiative has little of the budget and influence of the Head Start operations.

In the last two years, Sullivan has told Head Start employees that the division needed restructuring and that Kennedy did not have management skills. Sullivan requested assessments of the workplace climate at Head Start by the U.S. Department of Justice; a federal team there found Kennedy was "controlling and unwilling to share power."

Sullivan's statement on Tuesday offered no explanation for the change, but said Head Start in Los Angeles County "will chart a new course" under an interim director, former Los Angeles Unified School District Assistant Supt. Evangelina Stockwell. The statement noted pointedly that at L.A. Unified, Stockwell served as leader of the "office of intergroup relations." A county spokesman said Sullivan and other county education officials would have no further comment.

In an interview, Kennedy said he was gratified to be trusted with a new assignment but did not understand the change. The program has a fraction of the budget of the Head Start job, and Kennedy said he did not seek the switch.

"The question is, with all of the accolades Head Start has received," Kennedy said, "why would you move the director?"

At the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Kennedy was responsible for one-third of the total budget and was sometimes considered more powerful than his boss, the county superintendent of education. And federal and state officials said he kept the county operation clean of the questionable costs that have plagued Head Start in other parts of the country.

"He was very good at working on expansion and getting different agencies to work together and bringing parents into the governance of Head Start," said Jerry Gomez, an associate director with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regional office in San Francisco, which oversees Kennedy's work. "We're disappointed to see Dr. Kennedy leave."

His removal at a time when the Bush administration and Congress are preparing to remake Head Start--and move it into the Department of Education--"doesn't make sense," said Jaleh Hadian, executive director of the Foundation for Early Childhood Education in El Monte, one of the 30 local agencies that contract with the county to run Head Start centers.

Hadian, who emphasized that she was speaking for herself and not for her agency, described Kennedy as "a visionary manager."

Kennedy is widely credited with persuading state and federal officials to work together in drafting guidelines for assessing children who come out of Head Start.

Founded in 1965 as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start is designed to prepare poor children for kindergarten by offering nutrition, dentistry, health care and socialization.

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