OPELOUSAS — St. Landry Parish school officials and board members on Thursday discussed applying for a $7.5 million federal grant that will allow the district to operate a parishwide Head Start program for pre-kindergarten students.
Superintendent Edward Brown said St. Landry Parish would take over operation of the federal Head Start program if the school system receives the grant. Head Start provides early childhood education services for low-income families.
Head Start programs in St. Landry Parish are operated by churches and privately run schools, said Scott Champagne, the school system’s federal program director.
The school district also offers pre-kindergarten classes at 38 school sites for 4-year-olds.
In an interview, Brown said he feels the district should manage the Head Start program, which provides services for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds.
“We know that when we get (students) who have been in our (pre-kindergarten) programs, they come to us fundamentally sound. The earlier we can get them, the better,” Brown said.
Champagne estimates that about 750 students attend the Head Start campuses in Opelousas, other municipalities and the school district.
The current federal grant recipient for St. Landry’s Head Start program is a private company, Champagne said. No representatives for the company addressed the board.
Brown said the school district won’t be alone in applying for the grant.
“We will be vying against a number of others, and there is no guarantee the (school district) will get it. We have the room in some of our schools, and we can offer them a number of services,” Brown said.
Champagne said the proposed grant covers a five-year period, although the grant under which the parish Head Start program operates is on a year-to-year basis.
School Board member Donnie Perron said during the meeting that he feels the district is “100 percent” in favor of assuming control of the Head Start services.
“The board and the superintendent are behind this because we realize the importance of educating children at this stage,” said Perron.
The board listened to input from Head Start officials from Acadia, Calcasieu, Sabine and Iberville parishes, which all run their parish Head Start programs.
Melyssa Snelling, director of the Sabine Head start program, said her school system is in its second year of running the services.
She told the board there’s a lot to consider during the initial stages of running a Head Start program.
“It’s like a mini-school system. You’re going to need a director for just Head Start. No matter what you put on paper, it’s so much. Every day, there’s something new,” she said.
The board asked the other directors questions that concerned funding, staffing, transportation and feeding issues.
Sheryl Piper, with the Calcasieu program, recommended hiring a dedicated finance director.
She told the board so much money is received by the Head Start program annually that an individual who oversees that volume of expenditures and expenses is necessary.
Sondra Myers said Acadia has operated the parishwide Head Start program since 1995.
Myers said Acadia’s school officials initially were divided about operating Head Start. Despite that, she said the program began to thrive early because the students’ parents became involved immediately.
Myers said the school district would not necessarily be required to provide bus transportation for Head Start students but could opt to provide other kinds of transportation assistance to families, such as gas reimbursements.
Snelling said Sabine Head Start teachers are certified. Myers said Acadia requires Head Start teachers to have associate degrees in early childhood education, as well as a four-year college degree.