ACPSD to relinquish remaining two years of Head Start grant

Apr. 27—An operational shift for Head Start and Early Head Start programs will take place this summer.

Aiken County Public School District, who currently is the grant recipient for the federally funded early childhood education program, voted during executive session on Feb. 28 to relinquish the remaining two years of their grant.

A new entity will be appointed by the federal office to serve the community starting July 1, 2023.

"I think as far as from a community standpoint, as long as Head Start remains in the community, it is a win-win situation, said Shadie Hall, who oversees eight Head Start centers across Aiken and Barnwell counties said.

Head Start is going to do all it can to make sure there is not an interruption of services and that the transition from the Aiken County school district is as seamless as possible, Hall said.

"Head Start won't go away, that is the key thing," Hall said.

Low enrollment and staffing issues are the main reasons the school district decided to end its grant program.

"We have tried numerous things, and let me just say this, across the nation, Head Start programs are under-enrolled. Prior to COVID, it wasn't an issue. Once COVID hit, everybody in South Carolina, in Region 4, and across the country are dealing with staffing issues," Hall said. " That was one of the reasons why the board voted to relinquish, based on not being able to sufficiently staff."

"We have a very low number of students in Head Start and a big part of that is because we are unable to staff... (and) student-teacher ratios in Head Start have to be maintained. We just don't have the capacity to meet that need," Aiken County Public Schools Superintendent King Laurence said. "Somebody who is just focused on Head Start and running that program might be in a better position to staff all the centers and make sure that we are able to serve more of those Head Start and Early Head Start students."

Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve children as young as 6 weeks through preschool. Participants of Head Start are connected with medical providers, given health screenings and connected with parental educational opportunities and social services.

The Aiken and Barnwell county programs as of April 24 serve 173 Head Start students and 39 Early Head Start students.

Hall believes Head Start is vital to the community.

"Head Start is important for this community because it allows children and families who could not otherwise afford the opportunity to go to an early childhood school or development program to do that," Hall said. "I think back to myself, I was a Head Start child, I went to Head Start... and if wasn't for that Head Start, I think about possibly being behind ...it gives children who are living in poverty a Head Start because the playing field is not equal."

One possible solution for staffing issues would be an enrollment reduction plan. According to Hall, the new grant entity would be responsible for that decision-making.