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Children in the Watauga Head Start program enjoy a field trip earlier this school year. The Head Start center will be replaced with home-based services in the fall. Photo courtesy of Katie Nelson

Originally published: 2013-05-30 21:12:50
Last modified: 2013-05-31 09:44:26

Watauga Head Start site to close

Watauga County's only Head Start center will not reopen this fall as the national school readiness program feels the pinch of the federal sequester.

Instead of reopening the Western TLC Head Start Center in Zionville, the program will offer less intensive and less costly home-based services to the 3- to 5-year-olds it serves.

Parents reacted to an announcement of the closure Monday with a mixture of disappointment and anger, and several said they're now scrambling to find alternative child care that can provide the same educational and social benefits.

Shellie Dollars, who attended Head Start herself as a child, said she was planning to send her 4-year-old son, Calvin, to the center again next year because she has witnessed its benefits.

"We were really looking forward to him going back in the fall, because they expect so much out of them in kindergarten," she said. " ... It's leaving a lot of parents with nothing for their kids to get that head start before they go to kindergarten."

The Head Start program was cut by 5.27 percent effective March 1 as a result of the sequester, a set of automatic budget cuts designed to curb the nation's growing deficit. The program started in 1965 as a way to improve school readiness for children from low-income families by promoting their cognitive, social and emotional development.

Robin Willis, director of Intermountain Children's Services, which administers the Head Start program in Watauga, Avery, Yancey and Mitchell counties, said the Board of Directors and policy council approved a strategic plan last week to deal with the cuts, which total $85,810 for the four-county region.

Instead of operating from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. five days a week, the center will be replaced with home-based services. One of two teachers will go into each child's home for at least an hour and a half per week to work with the child and parents individually, Willis said.

At least once a month, the children will come together for socialization activities such as art, physical education or other activities, she said.

Willis said the decision to close the Zionville site was made in part because of the condition of the classroom, which is rented space within the former Mabel School.  Cracked walls, a leaking roof and occasional flooding have made it unsafe for children, she said. Willis said staff has looked for alternative sites before and found nothing affordable that fits the federal guidelines.

The centers in Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties, which are owned rather than rented, will remain open, she said. Additional cuts will have to be made, but Willis did not specify where those will occur.
Willis said she didn't understand what the "uproar" was about, as the Head Start program will still be active.

"We're still doing a service, it's just a different way, and it's still quality care," she said. "The parent's going to take a bigger role because they are the child's first teacher."

Cindy Potter, whose son John attended Head Start this year, said the center provided an array of benefits that at-home services can't match. She said he started out a picky eater but has broadened his food choices from interacting with other kids at Head Start.

She worried about how her son and other kids would approach kindergarten without an additional year of socialization and structure.

"It's unreal what they expect those children to know before they go into first grade, and if they're sitting there crying for mama, they're not going to learn anything," Potter said.

Katie Nelson, whose boyfriend's daughter attended Head Start this year, said the Head Start teachers, April Rominger and Carrie Hagaman, led the children on field trips to Lazy 5 Ranch, Grandfather Mountain, local ponds and other places.

"It also gives a lot of these kids a set schedule," she said. "It gives them some stability in their lives."

Aside from the benefits to 3-year-old Zoey, Nelson said the Head Start program allowed parents to keep full-time jobs because the children were provided bus transportation and nearly all-day care.

Some parents said they did not apply for the North Carolina Pre-K Program, offered through Watauga County Schools, because they believed Western TLC Head Start would still be available.

The school system recently announced that it would open only four classrooms serving 72 children this fall -- far fewer than the number who qualify.

Tamara Stamey, director of elementary education for Watauga County Schools, said the school system is still offering screenings and will take applications for pre-K on an ongoing basis but cannot guarantee placement.

"At this point, it is likely that the eligible applications would be part of our waiting list, since we have more eligible applications than slots available," Stamey said in an email.

Lee Marshall, program manager for The Children's Council, said lower-income families may be able to seek subsidized child care services through the Department of Social Services.

A toll-free hotline, available at (877) 670-8735, also provides referrals to child care centers with available space in the region, she said.

Parents who can't find adequate child care may be able to open their own in-home child care centers, Marshall added. The Children's Council helps interested parents to adapt their homes to make them safe and achieve state licensure.

Caroline Dollar, whose position as the family service worker may not exist in the fall, said the end-of-the-year celebration held Wednesday was bittersweet for the families who expected to return in the fall.

Of the 18 children currently served at Head Start, only three are headed to kindergarten, she said.

Aside from the 15 planning to return, Head Start received about 26 other applications for admission.

Dollar said she worried about how the children will be served without the Head Start program operating five days a week.

"They've got great parents, but they're just really isolated if they don't come together as a group," she said.