County BOE votes to relinquish Head Start grant


CURRY — Head Start will soon be a thing of the past in Walker County Schools.

The Walker County Board of Education unanimously voted Thursday night to relinquish the Head Start grant at the conclusion of fiscal year 2020 on Sept. 30. It was a decision that angered some in attendance at the school board meeting.

"This is not the elimination of Head Start services. This is simply relinquishing us applying again for the grant," Walker County Board of Education Superintendent Dr. Joel Hagood said to the crowd who attended the meeting at Curry High School on Thursday. "That will allow a local agency to apply for it and take on those services of Head Start, which will then allow us to replace all 13 of those units with First Class Pre-K classes in our schools."

He further said that adding the First Class Pre-K classrooms will save tax-payers money and expand services to youth, allowing an additional 250 students to receive early education before kindergarten.

"This is a good thing. This is a great thing," Hagood added. 

Some visitors in attendance at the meeting felt differently.

One guest, a social worker, repeatedly interrupted board members during the vote to voice her opinion.  

After the vote in favor of relinquishing the Head Start program grant, she criticized board members for not allowing community input prior to the vote.

It is customary at school board meetings that no one outside of the school board be allowed to speak, unless they are already on the school board's agenda.

Following the meeting, the social worker stood up and said, "I urge everyone to take a stand in this."

Ahead of Thursday's vote by the school board, a Head Start Policy Council that consists of parents also voted unanimously to relinquish the Head Start grant.

Head Start and Alabama's First Class Pre-K program do come with some differences.    

According to the Administration for Children & Families website, Head Start programs are for 3- and 4-year-olds and are federally funded. Younger children may also participate in Early Head Start programs.

The First Class Pre-K program is state-funded and only open to 4-year-olds.

Furthermore, Head Start is known for supporting low-income families and those with disabilities.

According to Hagood, those who are economically disadvantaged and children with disabilities are still eligible for First Class Pre-K.

Also of note, Head Start students receive free lunch, and First Class Pre-K students can apply for free and reduced lunch. 

While the agency in Walker County that may offer Head Start has not been named, Hagood said arrangements are being made for Head Start to still be offered in the county.

The location of the Head Start program would be accessible to all, according to Hagood.

"This agency will be able to provide transportation, whereas, for kids that age, we cannot as a school system," he said. "We can't put them on a bus. This agency, who is not a school system, can."

He added, "This agency will transition services from birth to 3, and then the goal is for us to pick up from 4-year-olds on. It's really allowing us to expand services to our kids from birth to graduation by doing this."

The Walker County Board of Education will have to apply for the additional 13 First Class Pre-K classrooms it intends to add, which are grant-funded through the state. 

"We are very, very confident that we're going to get them," Hagood said.

According to the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education website, since 2013, the First Class Pre-K program has grown from serving 5,000 students in the state to more than 21,000 in 2019. The program is highly supported by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, and other state departments of education have visited Alabama to learn about its Pre-K model in hopes of implementing it elsewhere.     

The Walker County Board of Education currently has 10 First Class Pre-K classrooms — one at each elementary school and one at the Walker County Center of Technology.

Thursday's vote will pave the way for the school system to add an additional 13 classrooms.

"This will allow us to have 23 First Class Pre-K classrooms, which is huge for our school system," Hagood said.