Heat problem leaves Head Start without enough classroom space; Boiler breakdown forces double sessions, layoffs


With 108 preschool youngsters stuck at home and four staff layoffs looming, Howard County officials are rushing to find classroom space after a boiler failure at the old Elkridge Elementary School forced the building's closure.

The emergency eliminated one of the three former schools used to house Head Start, a federally funded preschool program, and will force double sessions at another former school - the Rockland Arts Center on High Ridge Drive in Ellicott City. But that building doesn't have enough room for one class of 17 children, and officials are hoping to get a portable building from the county to house them next to the Rockland building.

Most of the children are expected to be back in Head Start classes by Wednesday.

'Would like to expand'

Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of the county's Community Action Council (CAC), which administers the $1.2 million-a-year program, says she's looking for a long-range solution.

"We would like to expand," she said, adding that she's talking to county school officials and County Executive James N. Robey's staff about getting new facilities - perhaps classrooms built as part of an addition to a county school.

And Robey is a fan, which doesn't hurt. "I think it's a fantastic program," he said, expressing his willingness to help.

'Dramatic crisis'

Head Start, Moore said, is "one of the most effective anti-poverty programs throughout the country," and with state and federal governments willing to spend more to help children from poor families at young ages, the potential for expansion is there.

But for now, she told the CAC board Tuesday night, "We've had a dramatic crisis."

Moore and Head Start center Director Yvonne Minge said the problem started when the weather turned cold in late December and the boiler at the old Elkridge building in the 6100 block of Old

Washington Road failed and could not be repaired.

The county tried to help, installing up to five electric heaters in each of the first-floor classrooms at the three-level brick building, but attendance was falling and by last week, Moore decided to shut the building down.

"It was cold - real cold," she told the board about her visit to the building Jan. 7.

Minge said she had to get county workers to move the heaters off the floors, where they were a hazard for the children, but hanging them on the walls made heating less effective, especially with rooms below and above them not having heat.

"We are required to be at least 68 degrees at floor level," Minge said. "It was about 60 [degrees]."

Classes at the Rockland building will change from one four-hour session daily to two 3-hour sessions - one for the displaced children, Moore said. The teachers there will work longer hours, meaning that four of the Elkridge building's 14 staffers will be laid off.

The other county Head Start site is the former Harriet Tubman School, next to Atholton High School in Columbia. That building- once administrative headquarters for the schools - is used mainly for school system maintenance shops.

Esther Drake of Columbia, whose 3-year-old daughter, Nia, attended Head Start at Elkridge, said she is "glad they have another location to move the children to. She [Nia] asks, 'When will I be going to my new school?' She needs that structure. She's looking forward to going back."

Building's future undecided

The fate of the Elkridge building - which was home for nearly half of the county's 228 Head Start children - is in doubt, county officials said. "We're looking for alternative uses," said county Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Elkridge Republican.

Last operated as a school in 1991, the Elkridge building would be expensive to repair or demolish. "I'd like to see the building used in some capacity," said Stephen J. Kelehan, whose family lives across the street.

If not, the young father said, "I'd love to see it knocked down and turned into a park. We've got houses going up everywhere around here," he said.

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