Duval County Head Start program awarded $18 million grant

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A fresh start for an embattled program that aims to help Jacksonville kids. Head Start Programs nationwide and on the First Coast have been on shaky grounds, with closures and funding issues. In August of 2013, the national Head Start office decided to close seven facilities in Jacksonville and terminate the Urban League from running the program due to child safety concerns.

Management duties were handed over to Community Development Institute and they're now working hand-in-hand with Lutheran Services Florida. On April 1, 2014 that group will be given an $18 million grant to operate the child care program for low income families.

For 13 years, Joyce Watkins has operated Kingdom Kids Learning Center, a private childcare facility that has been chosen to become a part of Jacksonville's Head Start program. She tends to about 35 children, including 3-year-old Imani Aiken. Her mother Victoria Aikens says it's difficult at times as a single parent making ends meet. First Coast News was there as Victoria got some welcomed news.

Watkins explained that Kingdom Kids Learning Center has formed a partnership with LSF, and will become a Head Start Program.

"There's no charge for head start so you would be able to take advantage of that savings," said Watkins. "Sometimes I know it's been a struggle."

"It's hard to pay the bills and day care," said Victoria. "So it's good that they have the program started and I'm happy."

LSF announced Monday they plan to run a tight ship, assuring parents that past troubles under different leadership won't be an issue.

"We're going to spend our time looking at the facilities, also making sure we hire the best qualified staff," said Louis Finney with LSF.

Finney says parents can expect extended hours and about 30 additional school days. The organization expects to be fully operational by June 1.

"Out with the old and in with the new," said Watkins. "I'm just excited about what the new head start program is going to bring to our Duval County families."

Watkins says she's looking forward to serving the many displaced families who were once a part of Head Start.

LSF will serve 1,403 children in its Head Start programs and 309 children in its Early Head Start programs.


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