When local leaders gather today to discuss Toledo's Head Start program, their toughest job may be to keep the focus where it belongs: on the futures of thousands of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children.
Pete Gerken, president of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, has assembled a who's-who of local political, community, and educational movers and shakers. The group will include Toledo Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko, Toledo Board of Education President Lisa Sobecki, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, United Way of Greater Toledo President Bill Kitson, Toledo Community Foundation President Keith Burwell, University of Toledo President Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, and the Rev. Donald Perryman, pastor of Center of Hope Church.
They will discuss $13 million in federal money that the Equal Opportunity Planning Association, which has run the local Head State program for more than four decades, is in danger of losing.
Last December, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said EOPA's grant to run Head Start would not be automatically renewed. Instead, the local agency, as well as 131 others among 1,600 Head Start programs nationwide, would have to compete to keep the program.
EOPA has been beset by problems in recent years. The agency has been in danger of losing its license to transport students, because of at least two incidents in which small children were forgotten on buses for hours.
Factional fighting among board members bubbled to the surface in 2008 over who should replace longtime executive director Oscar Griffith. The Head Start program has gone through three directors in three years. Michelle Brown, who resigned after only a few weeks, raised questions about child safety and complained that the leadership of current executive director James Powell was "bringing the program to its knees."
EOPA has vowed to fight to keep the program. That's understandable, since the federal grant makes up the bulk of the agency's annual budget.
But TPS officials also have expressed interest in running Head Start. The school district already runs a preschool program for students with special needs that enrolls about 500 children.
A program run by TPS would have advantages, including existing facilities and administration, experience, and a commitment to highly trained teachers. Other groups that might consider applying are the YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo and UT's college of education.
The community leaders who meet today should not be swayed by political pressure, from any source. This meeting is not about the 300 union members who might lose their jobs if the Head Start program changes hands. The only relevant question is: Who will do the best job for Toledo's at-risk children?
Head Start began because poor children often were 18 months or more behind their peers in reading readiness, social skills, and other critical areas when they entered kindergarten. Most children who are that far behind when they are 5 years old never catch up.
Yet assessment data suggest that TPS students who went through the Head Start program were no more ready for school than their eligible peers who did not attend Head Start. That suggests that instead of a head start, Toledo's children get no start at all -- a damning appraisal of the agency that has run the program since the 1960s.
EOPA has had ample time to get its act together. The children it serves do not have time to waste. Head Start in Toledo appears to need a fresh start.