An uncertain future for Head Start centers in Atlantic and Cape May counties is a little clearer now, after a new operator was named to take over nine locations by November.
Gateway Community Action Partnership of Bridgeton is preparing to hire employees and take over operation of the centers, which provide the federally funded early childhood learning programs Head Start and Early Head Start to the youth in the region.
The nine centers will all be open by November, which is a concern for some families, who’d hoped to use the programs at the start of school.
In April, Atlantic Human Resources gave up operating 20 Head Start centers after the federal office of Head Start informed the agency it was not going to renew its grant after June 30.
The centers were subsequently taken over on an interim basis by the federally assigned, Colorado-based Community Development Institute.
Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start, said at least seven of the 20 centers have been closed — some related to damage from Hurricane Sandy — and nine will be taken over and opened within the next 30 days. The centers do not operate during the summer.
In addition to the nine planned for reopening, Gateway anticipates adding new locations to replace some that were closed.
Gateway, which also does business as Tri-County Community Action Program Inc., is a grant recipient for Head Start in several counties in New Jersey and one location in Philadelphia, said Bonnie Eggenburg, vice president of Head Start for Gateway.
The current New Jersey centers are in Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem and Mercer counties.
Operating centers in Atlantic and Cape May counties will also benefit families in the neighboring region, espcially those in and around Cumberland County, Eggenburg said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“The families have had a rough time for the last several months,” Eggenburg said of clients in Atlantic and Cape May counties who had to deal with a sudden change in ownership mid-year, as well as the shutdown of some locations due to health and safety issues.
One example was the Adriatic Avenue location in Atlantic City, which closed in April. CDI was forced to close the location — which had been accommodating the children from the Mediterranean Avenue location due to damage from Hurricane Sandy — when the state did not give the location a satisfactory health inspection.
The closing of the Mizpah center in Hamilton Township is also creating a burden on families in the area.
Nachalee Andujar, 26, of Mays Landing, said she was anticipating sending her 3-year-old son to the Mizpah center at the start of the school year while she attended classes.
Andujar now has to find another means of supervision for her son, but she is hoping a new center will open soon. She said she had a great experience with the center a few years ago when her daughter attended the Mizpah facility.
“I liked it because she learned (so) much. She went prepared for kindergarten. They help the kids a lot. Sometimes kids in kindergarten start reading or writing. She already knew how to,” Andujar said in a phone interview Wednesday. Her daughter is now entering the second grade at the George L. Hess Educational Complex.
Gateway has not yet been officially awarded the grant, so the total to be awarded is uknown, Eggenburg said. Gateway is also applying for Sandy rebuilding funds, as advised by the national Office of Head Start, to help rebuild some of the centers that were affected by the hurricane.
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