By Megan Dooley
The Oak Park Head Start child care program has found a new place to call home. But local early childhood advocates are frustrated that early efforts to relocate the program were unsuccessful and that the final space sharing solution has room for only half of the program's 68 children.
Hephzibah Children's Association Executive Director Mary Anne Brown confirmed that Hephzibah and Head Start have entered a partnership, and the program will be kicking off the school year in its new home at Hephzibah's North Blvd. headquarters sometime in early September.
At an Aug. 23 meeting of the District 97 elementary school board, Superintendent Albert G. Roberts called the program reduction "unconscionable, just unconscionable."
Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded development programs for children and families in Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park. They operate as a program of the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County (CEDA).
In April, Wednesday Journal reported that rumors had begun to circulate that the building which had long housed Head Start at 44 W. Madison had been sold. The building had been owned by Park National Bank. When that bank was taken over by federal authorities, the Head Start building was not part of the transfer of assets to US Bank and eventually it was put up for auction by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In April, CEDA Vice President Unita Sims said she knew nothing of a sale, but other agencies in the village confirmed that the program was actively looking for a new site.
Sims said Thursday that she cannot yet confirm any details about the new location, but agreed to an interview with Wednesday Journal on Friday afternoon.
Brown said that Hephzibah signed a contract with Head Start last week, and is now hiring staff and working to get the space ready for the kids. The program is slated to restart after arrangements are made to hold an open house for parents of Head Start participants.
"I think that everybody felt bad that Head Start might have to move," Brown said. "So they approached us and we've been working incredibly well with the Head Start staff to make a smooth transition for the children."
It is unclear if there are plans in the works for the 34 children that will be shut out of the program because of size limitations at the new site.
Brown said that because the Hephzibah space formerly housed the organization's kindergarten program, it's a licensed space that is perfect for Head Start. "It's very homey, and I think that the parents will be very excited to share the space with us," she said.
Brown said she thinks the partnership will benefit both parties. "I think it's really exciting for us," she said.
But others aren't as enthusiastic. At the August 23 District 97 meeting the board's vice president Bob Spatz criticized CETA for its inaction. "Head Start will be renting space from Hephzibah, but they only have room for half the kids. And CEDA could have bought that building (on Madison Street) for a song -- $500,000," he said, adding later that that was a ballpark figure for the amount at which the building sold at auction. "This was a failure on the part of CEDA to address something they've known about for years."
Spatz later told Wednesday Journal he is not sure if the sale price is something the Head Start program was in a position to pay. "It may or may not have been a good business decision on their part. I have no idea even what their annual budget for that program is," Spatz said. But he said it seemed like a better alternative than moving and cutting the program size. "It seems like that is a relatively good price for a piece of property on Madison Street that is already built up to your specification," he said.
Jean Lotus contributed to this article.