Records reveal why MPS Head Start funding got suspended; district at risk of losing program altogether

NOW: Records reveal why MPS Head Start funding got suspended; district at risk of losing program altogether

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A juice box smacked out of a child's mouth, kids running hallways unattended and multiple instances of children either left on a school bus or dropped off at the wrong location. Those are some of incidents federal officials cited in their decision to suspend funding Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) had been receiving for a free preschool program that serves low-income families.

A 30-day suspension of federal Head Start aid takes effect Tuesday. While MPS officials say classes will continue uninterrupted for the rest of the school year, the district is at risk of losing future funding.

A spokesperson for the Administration of Children and Families (ACF), which oversees the Head Start program under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told CBS 58 Monday there is now an open competition to determine who will operate the program in Milwaukee moving forward.

The ACF spokesperson said the agency has received applications from parties interested in taking over Milwaukee's Head Start operation. Federal officials expect to make a final decision on future funding by the end of this month.

For the 2023-24 school year, MPS received $14 million in federal aid to run Head Start, which currently operates out of 37 different MPS schools.

To qualify for Head Start in Wisconsin, a family of four must have a household income of less than $31,200. According to MPS budget records, the district projects to receive $10.5 million for Head Start next year.

MPS has told parents and staff the suspension stems from "three program deficiencies that occurred between June 2022 and May 2024."

In its statement, ACF officials say the decision to suspend funding was "due to a failure to establish and implement a system of ongoing monitoring to ensure the safety of children in their Head Start program."

Superintendent Keith Posley told CBS 58 in an interview Friday the district had learned of the suspension one day earlier.

"I will say to you we got a notice yesterday," Posley said. "We made our families aware. We made our staff aware."

While neither MPS nor the ACF have shared details of how the district's shortcomings endangered kids, CBS 58 has obtained documents connected to a letter the ACF sent to MPS on April 26. Posley was listed as one of the letter's recipients.

One page in the file lists 19 different incidents between June 2022 and February 2023. Three of the February incidents occurred at Metcalfe School, and included observers noting staff were "yelling at children and threatening children." That unannounced visitor also noticed kids running unsupervised in hallways, and there was also an incident where a child vomited into a trash can. Staff patted the child on the back and offered water. 

"No clean up or additional attention," the report noted. 

When asked about the suspension Friday, Posley said the district was working to correct the issues.

"We got a notice of infractions that we are working- we have a plan in place," Posley said. "We are working with that plan, and we are going to continue to work with that plan, and we will be successful with that plan."

The documents indicate MPS has had plenty of time to come up with a plan. After noting different safety-related incidents in January, March and July of 2023, ACF officials noted the district "has not remedied the issues and had not implemented procedures to address their recurrence."

After a series of incidents in early 2023, the problems have continued at MPS Head Start locations into this year, prompting federal officials to suspend funding for 30 days, and possibly, for much longer.

More recently, a pair of serious incidents happened last November.

At Grant Gordon Learning Center, a substitute paraprofessional "told a child to finish their lunch. Five seconds after the statement, the substitute smacked a juice box out of the child's mouth and threw away their lunch."

The report noted that same substitute was seen grabbing a child by the wrist, pulling them in line and yelling at them. 

Turns out, it was that substitute's first day on the job, and they were fired soon thereafter. The ACF report noted an MPS official said substitutes "did not receive specific training on early childhood work."

Also in November 2023, a bus driver dropped off two Head Start kids at Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education. The driver left the kids at a different location than usual, and there was no authorized adult present to receive the children.

The report noted one child walked toward the playground while the other left the premises completely. A school safety officer later found the child one block away.

Then, this past January, a child was supposed to be dropped off for Head Start at Riverwest Elementary. The child fell asleep on the bus, and the driver never did a sweep after finishing the route.

Instead, the driver started a new route, picking up K5-12th grade students and dropping them off at Barack Obama school. At that point, the preschooler woke up, and the driver left the child in the Obama school's staff parking lot. After three minutes, a staff member found the child and took them into the office.

MPS Spokesperson Nicole Armendariz said in an email Monday the district has responded by meeting with the district's Head Start administrators and updating its transportation plans.

"The district also created and implemented a communication plan to refresh staff training about safety and Head Start program conduct," Armendariz said. "Including the creation of new materials to provide daily safety reminders and compliance information, placement of informational materials in classrooms, new materials for substitute teachers, and guidance about providing information to substitute teachers."

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