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Head Start programs
Lady Bird Johnson visiting a classroom for Project Head Start in 1966.

New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is at risk of losing a $190 million grant, after the federal government included it on a list of 132 substandard Head Start agencies across the country this week.

Head Start is the half-century-old federal preschool program for low-income children. ACS, among the oldest and largest Head Start agencies in the country, did not meet the “quality thresholds” set by the federal Office of Head Start, according to a list made public Tuesday by the Administration for Children & Families, which oversees the program.

Educators and advocates said the announcement could mean major upheaval for ACS, which serves 120,000 children and families in New York City and oversees contracts for 250 Head Start centers.

“It would have a huge impact,” said Nina Piros, director of early childhood programs for University Settlement, which runs two Head Start centers on the Lower East Side under a contract with ACS. “If ACS does lose its grant, then delegate agencies will be out of business, to put it mildly,” she added, referring to the centers that contract with ACS.

“There’s a lot of jaws that dropped,” said Steven Antonelli, administrative director of the Head Start program at the Bank Street College of Education.

The potential loss of funding could disrupt a new initiative, EarlyLearn NYC, which is meant to streamline funding and improve the quality of the city’s early education programs. This fall, the city required all of its childcare programs, including the Head Start centers it oversees, to reapply for funding. But now that the city itself must reapply for its federal grant, “the implications could be pretty dramatic,” said Nancy Wackstein, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, a multi-service agency based in the city.

“If they don’t control the allocation of Head Start funds, then that would mean that they could not implement the EarlyLearn model,” she said.

ACS is not the only large Head Start agency, known as a super-grantee, whose funding is threatened. The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which bills itself as the largest Head Start agency in the nation, was also included on the list, along with nonprofits and school districts in 38 states. Virginia has the greatest number of agencies that must reapply for their federal contracts, with 11; Ohio has 10, and New York isn’t far behind, with nine.

The agencies on the list serve nearly 148,000 children, according to the Administration for Children & Families.

The announcement is part of a new Obama administration initiative to increase quality by forcing Head Start programs that don’t meet certain standards to “re-compete” annually for their grants.

Head Start has faced criticism in recent years over the quality of its programs, and a federal study last year found that academic gains made by children in the program disappear in elementary school. Many Head Start grantees have received federal funding for decades with little turnover in providers, except when serious safety or financial concerns have arisen.

“Providing robust, open competition for Head Start funding will not only provide opportunities for new organizations to offer services, but it also increases the number of low-income children in high-quality care,” Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, the director for the Office of Head Start, said in a statement.

Officials at both ACS and the Los Angeles County Office of Education said the reasons they had been included on the list had nothing to do with the quality of their programs, however. In ACS’s case, the federal government, in a 2009 audit, flagged the program for “administrative deficiencies” that had to do with healthcare insurance for workers at Head Start centers.

In Los Angeles, interim Head Start director Keesha Woods said that the Office of Head Start had audited the agency in search of fraud last year. Although no fraud was discovered, the agency was cited for “inconsistencies” in how its two dozen subcontractor agencies filled out paperwork.

W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, questioned the method that the federal government used to measure the quality of agencies. “I think the weak point really is that they’re not using direct measures of children’s gains as one of the criteria for deciding who needs to be re-competed,” he said.

Michael Fagan, an ACS spokesperson, said the agency would reapply for its grant: “We remain proud of the Head Start services we provide to children and look forward to being successful in the process.”

It’s unclear who might apply to compete with large agencies like the ones in New York and Los Angeles. More competition could provide openings for companies like New York City-based Acelero Learning, the first large-scale for-profit to run Head Start centers.

Steven Antonelli of Bank Street said the competition could provide opportunities for smaller agencies, like his own, to apply directly to the federal government for funding. Although he said the competition could create chaos as local agencies seek funding under the EarlyLearn NYC program while also trying to get their own federal grants, the news is “exciting,” he said.

“We’ve wanted to have a direct grant for a long time,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity.”

This story appeared on the website of GothamSchools on December 20, 2011.

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