The territory’s Head Start, Early Head Start and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs have served decreasing numbers of Virgin Islanders over the last five years, a study conducted by the University of the Virgin Islands and several nonprofit and governmental entities concluded.
One program needs revamping, while the other two are operating as they should, the study indicated.
The research into the federally subsidized programs was conducted by a coalition – the Alliance for Responsive Investment in Children’s Health: U.S. Virgin Islands (A Rich VI) – through the support of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
Members of the research team gave a daylong presentation about the process and results Wednesday at the UVI Great Hall. Noreen Michael, the lead investigator, said the research group included representatives from the Governor’s Office, V.I. Department of Justice, V.I. Human Services, V.I. Health and V.I. Housing Authority departments, Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, Family Resource Center, Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, UVI nursing school and a few other organizations.
The group met quarterly and agreed on a series of principles guiding their work: studying information that is important to all involved, is locally relevant and will improve Head Start/Early Head Start and TANF.
They also agreed on methods to gather research: interviewing clients, parents, staff and managers; hosting focus groups; and reviewing appropriate documents. Between 2010 and 2015, more than 116 clients were interviewed.
Leading up to the research findings on the federal programs, Janine Jurkowsky, project consultant and assistant dean at the University of Albany, NY, reported that maybe as many as 70 percent of Virgin Islands families live at or below the national poverty level and unemployment is 13 percent. Health and well-being are both affected by poverty, she said.
Deborah Brown, research associate, reported on the children’s programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, that serve children from birth to five years of age. Head Start readies children for school with supervised instruction and interaction with adults and other children in a classroom setting. She said Head Start cares for around 894 children, down from a high of 959 in 2015.
Historically, there have been a high number of people on the waiting list to enroll their children in Head Start, the largest number being 548 in 2016-17. The number is much lower now, around 50 according to Michael Richards, Head Start disabilities coordinator and panel member. He said the decrease is likely due to a program launched recently by the Health Department – Granny PreSchool.
Early Head Start is managed by Lutheran Social Services on St. Croix and currently serves 109 infants and toddlers – down from a high of 120 in 2012. Currently, the program provides services for 25-30 pregnant women.
Income is the primary criteria for acceptance into HS/EHS programs but applicants who are homeless, in foster care or have a disability receive priority, Brown said.
The report found that administrative and managerial levels of the Head Start and Early Head Start programs have been unstable in the past and there are current staff shortages. On the other hand, teachers are well credentialed and many have held their positions for more than a decade, Brown said. Due to shortages, some assistant teachers have taken on the role of teachers and some teachers have classrooms with up to 20 children without an assistant.
Despite the teaching situation, the research reported that Head Start children performed poorly in language, literacy, math and science. Children on St. Thomas-St. John were consistently below St. Croix children over the course of three years during the test period.
“Teachers didn’t get the feedback [from the research project] in time to make improvements,” Brown said.
Head Start and Early Head Start recipients receive health services including vision, preventative and dental care. The study found that while children consistently received screenings while in the care of the federal programs, very few followed up with treatment.
“Take care of your child now means not only feed them but prepare them to be able to go to school,” LaVerne Ragster, moderator and UVI president emerita, said.
Research associate E. Aracelis Francis presented findings on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. States and territories receiving TANF funds can shape the program to their needs. Goals include helping parents care for children in their home and finding employment to end dependency on government programs.
Francis said historically there have been twice as many TANF clients on St. Croix as St. Thomas “because of the economy.” The study reported the average number of recipients ranged from 1,502 to 1,071 between 2010 to 2015. The research also reported that while funding in 2015 was almost $5 million, fewer that 25 percent of the applicants went to work.
The TANF program, begun in 1996, has 12 funded positions and 11 are currently filled. Staff who provide direct services have a bachelor’s degree and four have earned a master’s according to the findings.
Throughout the day, there were several panel discussions about the research. Carla Benjamin, Human Services assistant commissioner, served on the last panel that focused on the implications of the study. She said the research “cross-walked” what has been anecdotally perceived by Human Services, the department that oversees the TANF program.
“We will rebrand and get rid of the stigma attached to it,” she said.
“Most of what we found out of the way people will use the data is for reporting, monitoring requirements and program quality,” Michaels said, adding student growth, discovering areas of need, parental involvement, interests, operational needs and referrals for external help, will also be important uses for the report’s findings.