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Three Wash. Head Start programs on the ropes

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For the first time in its 47-year history, the Head Start program is introducing some tough accountability measures. That’s left three Washington providers fighting for their lives, including a Seattle program with a storied history.

Head Start has been providing preschool to low-income kids since the 1960s Great Society days. Now the federal government is cracking down on the most troubled providers, forcing them into open competition to keep their own contracts. That includes Seattle’s Daybreak Star, one of just a few urban Native American Head Starts in the country. Director Robert Radford said they’re under scrutiny because of problems uncovered by an audit, including a disengaged board, no chief financial officer and high turnover at the top.

“It just signifies organizational dysfunction,” Radford said.

Radford, who took over in February after a string of short-lived directors, said some of the problems are rooted in the history. Daybreak Star’s Head Start program emerged in the 1980s from the community that formed around the Indian takeover of Fort Lawton. They were led by the charismatic Bernie Whitebear.

“Daybreak Star was his family, his home. And after his death, it’s like the absence of any leader, any strong, spiritual leader,” Radford said.

Radford said having to fight for its own grant has forced the organization to grow up and find its footing without Whitebear. He says the leadership and the governance of the organization are on much more solid footing.

Joel Ryan of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP said that’s exactly the kind of improvement the new accountability measures are supposed to create.

“The competition process, I think, is a really good one. Programs really have to be on their game all the time,” Ryan said.

Ryan said the recompetition is no death sentence for Daybreak Star, but it’s a serious challenge.

“I think it’ll be very competitive, particularly the ones in Seattle,” he said.

Seattle’s First A.M.E. Child Development Center and the Opportunity Council in Bellingham are also facing recompetition. Even if those programs lose their grants, other local agencies would pick then up: No slots for kids will be lost. But Daybreak Star’s Robert Radford said for his community, losing the Head Start program would be a real blow.

“It still would raise havoc in a program like Daybreak Star where urban Native Americans consider that sort of the centerpiece of their community,” he said.

Radford says he’s hopeful Daybreak Star’s unique history will give it an edge, as their 25-year legacy goes up for grabs.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.