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Students Caught in Battle Between Head Start Group, Education Office

A federal agency is set to decide on whether to uphold L.A. County's canceling of a contract with a provider of early childhood services.

June 22, 2005|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning at a North Hills Head Start program, a group of rambunctious children sat in a circle, eyes wide as their teacher calmed them with a song about dancing fingers, designed to help them learn to count.

Parents waited at the door, smiling, ready to pick up their charges for the walk home.

Nothing signaled that the program, run by the Latin American Civic Assn., was at the center of a fierce battle pitting the association against the Los Angeles County Office of Education, and both of them against the federal government.

Caught in the middle are more than 1,400 children and nearly 300 teachers and other staff who are unsure if they will have a school to return to next fall, or who will be in charge.

"I like this program a lot," said Leticia Perez, whose 5-year-old daughter, Jennifer Delgadillo, has attended the center for a year. "She has learned her numbers, her name, but most importantly, how to respect her other classmates. But if this site weren't here, I probably would not send her to school."

The dispute began in March when the county Board of Education canceled a $10-million federal Head Start contract with the 42-year-old civic association, which provides free preschool in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys for low-income children.

The association, known as LACA, also operates 25 other Head Start and Early Head Start centers and is one of the largest providers of the program in the county.

In 2004, LACA was cited by the federal government for deficiencies in its administration of Head Start and was given a year to fix them. A follow-up review by the county determined that the agency had failed to address other management, spending and personnel problems.

A March 15 county report found that LACA violated licensing requirements by allowing children to enter class without prescribed immunizations. "Staff have not been able to maintain oversight of this and other basic health requirements, which resulted in 415 children having received no completed physical examination, and 360 children have not had a completed dental exam," the report said.

The county also said LACA failed to provide referrals and monitoring for children with disabilities. The review team noted that LACA had no provisions for dealing with conditions such as seizures or asthma.

"If you had a child that had seizures and nobody has looked at that child and you knew there needed to be a plan, what would be your response as a parent?" Carolyn Mangrum, interim director of Head Start for the county Office of Education, said in an interview. There "has been an ongoing issue of fixing a problem, having it not stay fixed and something more serious happening."

LACA was nearly shut down in 1993 for mismanagement. And while some parents have held rallies to support it, a group of parents and former employees, the Save LACA Head Start Coalition, has repeatedly complained about poor services, high staff turnover and unfair terminations.

LACA appealed the decision to cancel its contract to the federal Administration for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start and is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A ruling could come as early as this week. Unless federal authorities intervene, LACA will end operations June 30. County education officials said they would take charge while a new agency is selected, which could take months. But many questions remain about how the programs would operate under a takeover.

LACA Executive Director Irene Tovar said that many of the issues raised were less serious than they appeared. LACA has upgraded its bylaws and elected new board members, she said. And only a fraction of children required immunizations, and they were removed from classes, she said.

"We're not a perfect agency, but at no time have children been directly harmed," Tovar said. "The county has made capricious and irresponsible efforts to discredit us, and that is because they have their own problems. They want to make us a sacrificial lamb."

Indeed, the county Office of Education itself was cited for management and monitoring violations -- mostly having to do with LACA's problems and those of other agencies.

In March, the Administration for Children and Families launched another review of the county office -- one of the largest Head Start grantees in the country, receiving $210 million in federal funding and serving 25,000 children.

Officials with the Administration for Children and Families would not characterize the scope of the new review or say what spurred it. A few other large Head Start grantees also have been singled out for more intensive examinations. But the county's handling of LACA has raised questions, said Steve Barbour, a spokesman for the federal agency.

LACA officials complained to the Administration for Children and Families that the county education office had made last-minute changes to its appeal procedures, depriving them of due process, an allegation the county denies.

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