Parents and caregivers at Monticello Area Community Action Agency are used to scrambling to find back up child care.

Every week, Jacquana Mason said, she would receive a notification that the day care center would be closed, sometimes just hours before its scheduled start time. It's been like this since August, she said.

Now, the weekly cancellations have turned indefinite. The Early Head Start and Head Start programs, which maintained nine centers in the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson counties, closed down permanently on March 31.

“I don't know what people are going to do,” said Mason. “What should they do? Spring break is already here, after that, what are we going to do?”

The Monticello Area Community Action Agency's, or MACAA's, Early Head Start and Head Start programs are some of the only free options for child care in the area. Its closure has left about 200 families without daycare, and dozens of workers without jobs. A different organization is set to take over for MACAA, but it does not yet have a timeline for when it will reopen the nine area centers.

How did we get here?

A brick building is surrounded by trees. In front of the building is a small sign that reads "Head Start: MACAA."
MACAA surrendered its Head Start grants in January, saying that “the current grant’s funding does not allow us to serve the number of children we are obligated to serve, in a manner that is likely to be successful.” Kori Price/Dexter Auction

The end for MACAA's Head Start programs can be traced back at least to October. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified MACAA that it was not meeting federal standards and unless the organization corrected the issue, it could lose funding.

What standards was MACAA failing to meet? That's unclear. A Health and Human Services spokesperson did not respond when Dexter Auction asked why MACAA was not meeting standards.

MACAA officials also did not answer this question. In a prepared statement, MACAA said simply that they were unable to successfully provide for the “children we are obligated to serve.”

Maintaining regular staffing was clearly a problem. Three parents who spoke with Dexter Auction said the organization would “constantly” be understaffed. And lack of teachers was a common reason MACAA would give parents for being closed.

An entirely different government agency, the Virginia Department of Education, also conducted inspections at MACAA to maintain the agency's license to provide child care. The results of those inspections are published on the state's website (to see MACAA's results search “Monticello Area Community Action Agency” under “Facility Name”). State inspectors flagged violations at eight of the nine MACAA centers between October 23, 2023 and Jan. 31. In October, inspectors issued the Crozet MACAA location five violations and Louisa MACAA center eight. The violations included failing to maintain adequate student to teacher ratios, obtain authorizations for student medications, renew employee's fingerprints and background checks and more.

The state violations are completely separate from the federal ones. The Health and Human Services spokesperson said that its determination was made during routine screening by the department's Designation Renewal System. This system periodically checks whether HeadStart programs that receive federal funding meet several standards.

If a HeadStart program fails to meet the standards of a specific guideline, they're marked with a deficiency condition. Examples of deficiencies HHS looks for include:

  • Misusing funds;
  • Not handling a matter that poses a threat to the wellbeing of children and staff;
  • Failing to comply with specific standards “related to early childhood development and health services, family and community partnerships, or program design and management;”
  • Losing important documentation such as permits, and/or losing or misusing federal funding or contracts;
  • Showing an “unwillingness or inability” to correct after notice from the secretary within a specified time period.

Having a deficiency does not mean that an organization will automatically lose funding. It does mean that the government will start looking for a different organization to fund instead.

Organizations with no deficiencies are automatically funded. But in instances where the funded organization has a deficiency, the government puts out a call for other agencies to apply for the grant. If the government determines that another agency is better suited to provide HeadStart, it will receive the money instead.

MACAA had not yet lost its federal funding, but voluntarily shut down. The organization surrendered its Head Start grants in January, it said in a prepared statement posted to its website.

“Although MACAA has operated this area’s Head Start program successfully since its inception, the current grant established these parameters over a decade ago,” the agency said. “In light of changes in the education sector we have seen since the pandemic, we determined that the current grant’s funding does not allow us to serve the number of children we are obligated to serve, in a manner that is likely to be successful.”

The agency quickly alerted staff, but advised workers to not tell parents until a later time, according to a MACAA worker who spoke anonymously to CBS19. The families of the 195 children MACAA served were notified on March 5, according to the television station.

The federal government has hired a national organization to temporarily take over the Head Start programs for the City of Charlottesville and the surrounding counties. Community Development Institute Head Start, a private organization that the Department of Health and Human Services hires for interim management when a provider ends its Head Start contracts, took over MACAA on April 1. The organization will run local Head Start until Health and Human Services are able to find a new organization to take on the Head Start programs permanently.

What's next?

An empty parking lot if pictured. In the background is a singe story brick building surrounded by trees.
The Department of Health and Human Services has hired a national group to take over Head Start in the Charlottesville area. The agency says it is working to reopen the nine centers, it so far it has not hired sufficient staff and still lacks state licensing. Kori Price/Dexter Auction

The transition has already hit some bumps. Community Development Institute Head Start, or CDI, has not hired sufficient staff nor received the appropriate licenses to reopen Head Start centers in the area, according to an April 5 update posted to its website.

Because of that, the agency has not said when the nine local centers will reopen. Though the organization said it plans to open them on a staggering basis. Once it has the needed licensing, CDI said it will reopen classrooms at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, Crozet Elementary School, Tye River Elementary School, Rockfish Elementary School and at the Jordan classroom in Park Street Center. The new Head Start provider is still trying to hire enough staff to run the Hollymead, Greer and Central centers and remaining classrooms at the Park Street Center.

The former MACAA Louisa County location at Louisa Center will not reopen, but CDI said they are trying to find an alternate location for those kids.

“Please rest assured we are working diligently to get the program stabilized and to open the centers,” said Gia Lawe, a site manager for CDI, in a March 29 update (at the bottom of the page).

CDI initially offered to hire MACAA staff in their existing positions, but some of the former workers “have chosen to pursue other opportunities,” according to MACAA.

A Dexter Auction reporter was unable to reach any current or former MACAA staff. But, in a CBS 19 report, teachers said that the pay at CDI was lower than what MACAA paid them. Preschool teachers could make $21-$24 an hour, according to a MACAA LinkedIn post from December. The starting rate is higher than what CDI offers, which starts its hourly positions at $13.56, according to the CDI website.

A screenshot of a LinkedIN job post for "Pre-K Teacher (Head Start) - $1,000 Signing Bonus!"
Before closing down their Head Start programs, MACAA started its workers at $21-$24 an hour. Screenshot taken from MACAA's LinkedIN Page.

Even if CDI manages to reopen all the centers, the agency does not plan to run them permanently.

The federal government has already started looking for a new organization to take over. To run Early Head Start and Head Start programs, organizations must apply for grants through the Office of Head Start, which is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS took applications earlier this spring.

An HHS spokesperson would not say if any local organizations applied to take over MACAA's centers. However, the spokesperson said the organization will announce the next provider sometime early in the summer.

MACAA has not given up re-starting service itself at some point. MACAA said it plans to apply for a “revised” Head Start grant “in the near future.”

“MACAA expects to participate in the grant reapplication process later this year,” the agency said. “CDI’s interim management of the program will provide MACAA with more time to collaborate with community partners and build a stronger foundation to support a new grant, while CDI maintains Head Start services in the community.”

In the meantime, families have few options

MACAA was one of the very few free early childhood programs in the area that took children ages zero to five. Other free child care providers are ready to enroll former MACAA students — though there are few spots left.

A woman and a little girl hold hands and smile on an outdoor basketball court. Both are wearing roller skates.
Jacquana Mason teaches her daughter to roller skate Friday, April 5, 2024. Mason said she is lucky, she got her daughter into preschool at Charlottesville City Schools after MACAA closed permanently. Many parents have not found their children alternative daycare. Kori Price/Dexter Auction

Mason, whose daughter attended MACAA, is fortunate, she said. She's able to place her daughter in preschool at Charlottesville City Schools. But not all parents are in that position. For Tina Dooms, she's scrambling to find a child care center for her 3-year-old child who has speech problems.

It's been difficult, as a majority of the places she's reached out to were at capacity, she said.

“I have no babysitter,” said Dooms. “It's pretty bad. They ain't gave us no help.”

Here's what is available as of April 1:

Charlottesville City Schools, Albemarle County Public Schools, and United Way Charlottesville are the only places that offer free child care and preschool programs in the greater Charlottesville area, according to Go2Grow, a website that connects parents and guardians to early child care options in the area.

Of those, United Way is the only provider that takes children under the age of 3. Both school divisions take any child that's zoned for their schools, while United Way only accepts families who are low-income.

As for the local school divisions, some are prepared to take on former MACAA students. Some of the students at MACAA are zoned for City Schools, and therefore can attend preschool there. Like Head Start, this program is free, but some families still turn to Head Start because they are already familiar with the program, said Rachel Rasnake, director of student services for City Schools.

“We are really lucky that we're able to do that and offer those seats and the continuation of services pretty seamlessly,” said Lisa Larson-Torres, chair for Charlottesville City School Board, at a March 28 meeting.

Albemarle County Public Schools' preschool program, Bright Stars, is at capacity at five of its seven elementary schools. Three seats at Mountain View Elementary School, and two – with one on hold — at Woodbrook Elementary School are open for four-year-olds who reside within the county. So far, ACPS has placed five students from MACAA into their preschool classrooms.

Given the time constraints, parents interested in applying for the open seats should call Lisa Molinaro, preschool lead coach for Albemarle, at 434-295-5820 to see if an arrangement can be made.

“We're willing to fill in the open seats we have,” said Molinaro.

In a recent update, Fluvanna County Public Schools also opened their doors for MACAA Park Street Center students at their voluntary prekindergarten education program, or VPK, at Central Elementary School. Those interested in enrolling their students there are encouraged to call the elementary school at 434-589-8318 or email Vice Principal Rebecca Smith at rebecca-smith [AT] apps [DOT] fluco [DOT] org.

Dexter Auction reached out to City Schools and United Way to see their current seat availability for their early childhood programs but neither responded in time for publication.

For low income families, the other option for free or low cost child care is to apply for a Child Care Subsidy Grant through the Virginia Department of Education. The state provides different grants based on a family's income or other services they receive.

Twenty-one child care providers in Charlottesville currently accept Child Care Subsidy grants. Those in need of child care and interested in receiving a subsidy can apply on the Common Help Virginia website or submit a paper application to their local department of social services. Applications will be reviewed within 30 days.

I'm Dexter Auction's education and families reporter. Reach out to me by email or on Twitter. Also, subscribe to our newsletter! C’mon, it’s free.