(Updated 5:20 a.m. Oct. 28 with Facebook post; 12:09 a.m. Oct. 28 with press release announcing day care opening.)
NORWALK, Conn. – The children who are enrolled in Norwalk’s Head Start program are heading back to Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) Monday morning, rather than to a Head Start program operated by the company called in by the federal government, a source says.
Community Development Institute (CDI), the interim Head Start agency appointed by the Department of Human Services Administration for Children and Families to take over NEON’s program for at least 30 days, has set up a hot line to keep parents informed about when — and if — the program will resume, CDI’s Brett Parmenter said. The number is 855-294-5718.
On Sunday evening, the hot line said:
“Dear Head Start parent,
“This message was recorded Oct. 27th, 2013. The federal office of Head Start has suspended Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now their authority to administer the Head Start program effective Oct. 24, 2013. Your Head Start program will be operated by Community Development Institute Head Start, who will serve as the interim manager for this program. CDI Head Start as promised in the parent community meeting Oct. 25, 2013, extended invitations to meet with NEON, Inc. both Saturday and Sunday. These invitations produced no meetings to be able to negotiate an agreement to operate under the license of NEON, Inc. as promised. Due to the circumstances, CDI Head Start will not be operating Head Start services on Monday, the 28th of October 2013. NEON also has not informed us whether they will have centers open and be operating services for your child tomorrow. We are hopeful that CDI Head Start will be able to operate Head Start services as soon as possible. In order to do this, CDI has started engaging important start-up activities now including space, licensing, staffers, vendors and insurance. ….”
The NEON general information line offered no additional information. A phone call to NEON interim CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson did not produce results, as she did not answer and her voice mail was full. A second line just rang with no voice mail pickup. Neither NEON board Chairman Michael Berkhoff nor NEON Communications Director Scott Harris returned a phone call or an email.
There were no fliers posted at NEON’s offices at 98 South Main St., at the Nathaniel Ely School or the Ben Franklin Center.
It was not until 11:07 p.m. Sunday that NEON emailed this press release:
Head Start parents can bring their children to school tomorrow morning, Monday, October 28th.
Although NEON Inc. is no longer operating the Norwalk Head Start program, day care facilities at Nathaniel Ely School and Ben Franklin Center in Norwalk will be open under the normal schedule.
At 5:01 a.m. Monday NEON posted an announcement on Facebook telling parents to bring their children to school Monday morning.
Former board member John Mosby was at a Sunday morning meeting for Head Start parents.
“They gonna have childcare tomorrow,” he said Sunday night, “but it won’t be under the name of NEON,” he said. “…. They say that they got a little grant to pay to have Head Start tomorrow, they say they will be open. They didn’t tell us where they got the grant.”
NEON did not say how many days of Head Start-like activity the grant will fund but they did tell everyone to report to work Monday, and that they will be paid, according to Mosby. He said he had seen Berkhoff head into a secret meeting with Stephenson.
Mosby said he is still trying to get copies of $800,000 in uncleared checks from NEON. He said he and other people are upset about the lack of community involvement in the situation.
Board member Jack O’Dea said he has “no idea” what is going on.
“Clearly something is going on that I’m not aware of,” he said. “This stuff doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t figure it out.”
O’Dea said whatever that is seemed to have been going on for several months. He said he did not know what would happen next.
Former board member Susan Weinberger said she had known what was happening. She said it was obvious as far back as Sept. 11 that NEON’s Head Start program was headed for a shutdown.
That was when a team from the Regional Office of Head Start met with board members prior to a regular board meeting for what was scheduled as two hours of training on Head Start operations, she said. That was the first of many such training sessions that were planned to take place prior to board meetings going forward to familiarize the new board about policies of the CAFCA (Connecticut Association for Community Action) agency, she said.
When the team arrived they asked NEON staff to leave and met only with board members, she said.
“The express purpose of the meeting was to inform us that they were designating NEON as a high risk award status grantee and outlined a specific set of deficiencies,” Weinberger wrote in an email. “In light of this shocking news, my greatest concern based on the findings was questions around safety of our children. When the meeting was over and the team left, members of the board met in executive session with the management team. We reported on what we had learned. In my opinion, there was a casual reaction of management to a serious, critical situation. I was so concerned that parents would pull their children out of the program when they heard about the safety issues. Management chose not to make the report public.”
The closure of the program was not sudden, she said.
“It was coming for a long time,” she wrote. “The management team of NEON continues to blame everyone but themselves.”
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