D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee says they need time to enact "systematic changes to enhance student supervision and safety."
D.C. Public Schools will lose millions of dollars in federal money for Head Start, which helps provide preschool for the city's low-income students at no cost.
In a letter to families, D.C. schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said the school system would "voluntarily relinquish" its Head Start money. The federal grant totaled more than $14.5 million for the 2019-2020 school year, and helped educate nearly 1,100 students under five years of age.
Ferebee said the school system will not lose any pre-K seats in elementary schools next academic year but some services paid for by the grant such as instructional coaching will be reduced. More than 80 jobs will also be eliminated in June.
Ferebee told reporters Wednesday morning the school system gave up the grant because it needed more time to address safety concerns in its preschools. He said schools' officials are working on "systematic changes to enhance student supervision and safety."
It is unclear what specific incidents may have prompted the school system to examine its safety protocols. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees Head Start, has reported multiple safety violations in pre-K programs operated by the school system in recent years.
In December, the federal agency identified two instances that required the school system to take corrective action.
One incident occurred at Wheatley Education Campus in September. The report said a boy refused to pick up toys he threw and a volunteer, who was foster grandparent, "forcefully dragged" the child by his upper arm and slammed him in a chair, causing the boy to hit his head against a bookshelf.
The report does not say if the foster grandparent dragged his grandchild or if it was another student. The agency found the school system failed to make sure school workers and volunteers did not "endanger the health and safety of children, including at a minimum, that staff must not physically abuse a child."
Another incident involved a child who was released to the wrong person from an elementary school in August, according to a report. A family friend was authorized to pick up the child but a teacher mistook the child for another student with a similar name.
The family friend did not know the child well and left campus with the "wrong child" before another parent recognized the error and brought everyone back to school, according to the report.
D.C. Public Schools reported both incidents to federal officials who run the Head Start program, according to the report. Head Start officials gave the school system 30 days and 120 days, respectively, to make the campuses safer.
On Wednesday, Ferebee said the school system has taken "corrective action" to address safety issues.
"Student supervision and safety will remain a priority," Ferebee said. "We want to use some additional time to make systemic changes."
Ferebee also said the D.C. schools were projected to receive significantly less money from the federal government for Head Start because fewer students were expected to qualify for the services next school year.
On March 31, D.C. Public Schools notified HHS that it would relinquish the grant money in June, according to the federal agency.
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said the federal dollars are necessary to educate the city's neediest students. Some schools have struggled to contend with rising costs and inflation, forcing cuts, she said.
Davis said the novel coronavirus could lead to more budget challenges and the school system "shouldn't be leaving federal resources on the table."
Eboni-Rose Thompson, who chairs the Ward 7 Education Council, a group that advocates for students in a part of the city that has a large population of low income families, said the city should invest more local dollars to minimize the loss of school workers and services.
"I don't know how you can preserve and ensure quality without making sure schools have adequate resources," she said. "I hope the city will make some decisions to invest in, protect and preserve as much of that as possible."
About 7,000 students in the city school system are enrolled in pre-K, which Head Start money partially pays for. Children who participate in Head Start, which focuses on preparing students for kindergarten and providing family support, also receive health services such as free dental care.
More than three years ago, the school system in Prince George's County lost its multi-million dollar federal Head Start grant following reports of young children being humiliated and excessively punished. Federal officials at the time said the district had not taken sufficient corrective action.