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Head Start cash in jeopardy for Pittsburgh Schools

| Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 9:19 p.m.

Pittsburgh Public Schools may have to compete for about $11 million in annual federal Head Start grants next year after a runaway child last year disqualified the district from getting an automatic renewal of its funding.

Under Department of Health and Human Services rules, any organization that wants to provide the federal preschool and early childhood development programs for poor children in Pittsburgh have until mid-August to apply, department officials announced on Wednesday.

Bidders can compete with the school district for the five-year grant money and the right to operate local Head Start programs, but Pittsburgh officials don't think they'll lose the funding to anyone else.

"We're planning on operating under the assumption we'll be receiving the same type of funding we are now," said Sherry Hazuda, president of the school board.

Chief of Staff Lisa Fischetti said the district's Early Childhood Education Program served 2,273 children in schools and affiliated child care centers in the city in 2011-12. The $10.67 million in Head Start grants funded about two-thirds of the program.

According to letters from Health and Human Services to the district, Pittsburgh schools must reapply because of an incident in March 2011, when a girl, 4, slipped out of the gymnasium at the McCleary Early Childhood Center in Upper Lawrenceville and walked home unsupervised.

Officials installed alarms on doors at the center and met with staff, parents and students to revisit their practices, but the damage was done: Federal rules state any Head Start provider that does not meet the program's performance standards must reapply, and the self-reported incident was enough to get Pittsburgh Public Schools flagged for leaving a child alone or unsupervised.

It is unclear how much competition the district could face. The first round of funding opportunities that opened for bids on April 19 has yet to draw responses, said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of Health and Human Services' Office of Head Start.

"Anecdotally, we've heard that there's a lot of interest out there," she said. "Overall, the intent of the regulation ... was to raise the quality of Head Start services, but it's also to get our current providers to look at their design and the kind of services they provide and ultimately make sure we have the best possible programs."

A spokeswoman for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which pulls in about $11 million federal money a year for Head Start and Early Head Start programs in the county, said it is not interested in expanding into the city.

The YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh might consider applying, President and CEO Rig Riggins said.

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