LORAIN — Lorain County Community Action Agency employees who are most often seen in the classroom took to the streets Tuesday to protest the agency’s plan to restructure the Head Start program and lay off about 25 assistant teachers.
The group of mostly women carried signs with messages such as “Be Fair to the Ones that Care” and “Save Our Jobs” as they walked in front of the agency’s Broadway headquarters. The workers are on summer break, but they know some likely will not have jobs Aug. 1 when the new program takes effect.
Head Start program is a federally funded preschool program for 3- to 5-year-olds.
“There is no need to change the structure of the program or redesign because we have a program that works,” said Katherine Ramsey, a family service worker and the local union’s executive board member. “Based on the federal review our program had in March, we are within Head Start guidelines, so this plan to restructure now is like a slap in the face.”
Jackie Boehnlein, president and CEO of LCCAA, said the program is being restructured to raise the level of instruction in the classroom and professional teacher development. Effective Aug. 1, Head Start will move to a model with two head teachers in each classroom. The current model has one head teacher and one assistant teacher in each room.
“This is not just simply a matter of changing out employees,” she said. “We are fundamentally changing the focus of instruction in the classrooms. We are truly excited, and we think it’s the right approach going forward.”
Marquis Frost, a union representative with SEIU District 1199, said the 110-member union is in contract negotiations with LCCAA. The contract expired July 31, 2013, and the two sides have been at the table for 18 months with no resolution.
Frost said members first got wind of a possible restructure when the idea was floated during bargaining talks. It was quickly pulled from negotiations by the LCCAA after Boehnlein said the agency’s attorney said the restructuring was a management right.
“We gave notice to the union and followed the collective bargaining agreement,” Boehnlein said.
Frost said the plan is a local one, not a federal mandate to change Head Start guidelines.
“They have what they need to meet Head Start requirements,” she said.
The 25 individuals in the assistant teacher positions were officially informed of the program changes earlier this month. The layoffs take effect July 31.
Of the 25, 11 people are qualified to be head teachers and will be allowed to apply for those co-teaching positions, Boehnlein said. The remainder would be eligible based on seniority in the collective bargaining agreement to bump into other positions including home visitor, cook and other employment options.
Boehnlein said it is possible all 25 affected employees could fall into other positions, but it’s too early to say.
“The union wants to make this an argument about program guidelines, but I don’t want to lose sight of what we are trying to do with this plan,” she said. “We know that with all the research that the level of instruction will only go up with two well-qualified teachers simultaneously working with children.”
Boehnlein said there is no direct language from the Office of Head Start calling for the two-teacher model, but there is a requirement for local grantees to take all measures to bring quality into their program. She also noted that it has been a long-standing policy of the LCCAA to offer tuition assistance to employees to encourage further education.
“Most have elected not to do that,” Boehnlein said.
Ramsey, who spoke passionately while fellow workers were encouraged by horn honks and shouts of encouragement from people passing by, said the idea that assistant teachers are not adequate is unfair to the workers. LCCAA’s directly operated centers — Hamilton School in Elyria and Hopkins-Locke Head Start in Lorain — are three-star-rated facilities based on the state’s Step Up to Quality rating system.
“That’s what hurts for a lot of the employees — they are the ones who worked hard to achieve those ratings,” she said. “They feel like they are getting slammed at every turn.’’