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NHCS loses Head Start Grant, number of preschool classrooms uncertain

Two pre-K aged children click through learning tablets with two adult volunteers.
Courtesy of New Hanover County Schools
Students at Dorothy B. Johnson Pre-K Center.

This school year, New Hanover County’s preschool programs will not be funded by the federal Head Start Grant — which funds Johnson Pre-K Center.

*This story has been updated to correct the number of employees at Johnson.

Head Start is a nationally funded program that ensures early childhood education for 3-5 year-olds. It is awarded in five-year cycles. This year, NHCS had to compete with other organizations for this funding. (WHQR has put in multiple public records requests about why the district had to compete for these funds.)

At Tuesday night’s Board of Education agenda review, Shannon Smiles, the director of Early Childhood Education, shared that this year’s preliminary budget projection for preschool children is $4 million less than last year’s budget.

The grant itself is worth about $3 million and typically goes to the Dorothy Johnson Pre-K Center, one of NHCS’s three preschool centers. The center employs over 50 people. District staff mentioned that this loss of funding would affect about 16 positions.

A competing agency that provides care to infants and youth was awarded the grant. The agency's name has not yet been released to the public, but it will provide services to youth in New Hanover County.

The New Hanover County school board did not pass its budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year on Tuesday and will hold an emergency meeting at 11 a.m. today instead. It will meet again on July 2 to discuss multiple agenda items — including controversial policies 7300 and 3200, which regulate what staff can have in classrooms.

Until a budget is passed and NHCS receives contact from the federal Head Start office, the program’s funding sources for this year are still uncertain.

Students who live in single-parent households, are in foster care, experiencing homelessness, or are considered low-income (with families earning 100% under the poverty level) are considered “high risk” and will continue being served.

This past school year, 764 students were served through the district’s programs for three- and four-year-olds in 46 classrooms. According to the board’s preliminary budget, 522 students will be served in 29 classrooms this year.

Smiles said she's still working on finding funding sources for these programs. All currently placed students will continue to be served, but the district will not take new enrollments until there's more communication with the National Head Start office.

The school district is working with the county to determine the future of the staff who work in these schools. NHCS held a meeting on Wednesday for teachers and staff who work at Johnston Pre-K Center—it is unclear what will happen to their positions and classrooms.

During the school board meeting this week, member Hugh McManus said that research shows the county needs to invest in students at this age. He also called the loss of the programs “appalling.”

Walker is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying Journalism and English. She has served as a writer and editor for UNC's student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, where she covered housing and the environment. Her reporting interests center around community, context and public history. Outside of her work, you can find her DJing for UNC's student radio station, running and taking film pictures. You can reach her at wlivingston@unc.edu.