“When one door is closed, another is opened,” Father Anil Thomas, priest of St. Peter Catholic Church said recently.
Thomas was explaining how the closing of St. Peter’s Catholic School at the end of May due to financial problems was followed last week by the opening of the largest of 10 Head Start programs operating in Jefferson and Grant counties on the same property.
The small campus at the corner of State and Alabama streets adjacent to St. Peter’s Catholic Church is hosting 135 children between the ages of three and five years old through the pre-school program operated by Denver-based CDI Head Start.
Thomas said that the lease agreement between the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock and CDI was finalized recently.
“It was really sad for people when we closed St. Peter school down,” Thomas said. “We were looking for a chance to continue to serve the community. Mayor [Carl A.] Redus called me when the school closed down and asked me what my plan was. He contacted Lee Meadows [Program Director at Head Start Pine Bluff] and Meadows came to see me.”
“They were looking for a place and we were trying to find a use for the building,” Thomas said. “They said this place was heaven for them. Now that they are here, the legacy of St. Peter will continue.”
Meadows said that the need for space came about after their former space at the Pine Bluff School District-owned Gabe Meyer Elementary School became unsafe due to the deterioration of the facility.
“We first thought we would be able to move to the old Indiana Street School but it cost too much,” Meadows said. “I received a call that St. Peter was closing and fell in love with this place at first sight. We have seven of the 10 classrooms we had at Gabe Meyer here and the other three at Royal Oaks and West Meadows in partnership with the Housing Authority.”
Meadows said that Head Start is different from typical pre-K programs in that it must adhere to strict state and federal guidelines for curriculum.
“We are here to prepare children for kindergarten,” Meadows said. “The Head Start program is income-based and need-based. When parents come to sign up their children for the program one of our social workers asks the family what their needs may be. We look at the child and the child’s family. Head Start deals with the family itself and the needs that they may have.”
Meadows said that children from families that exceed the poverty line by up to two percent can be accepted into Head Start if they have special needs that the family cannot get addressed anywhere else.
“We always have a number of parents that try to sign up their children when we open up a Head Start program but many of them are screened out because their income is too high,” Meadows said.
“I am looking forward to a long partnership with Father Thomas and St. Peter,” Meadows said. “I remember being a student in Head Start in 1965 and to be able to be in this position now to work with these children is truly wonderful.”
Delores Harris is the head teacher at the St. Peter’s Head Start location.
“It is really God’s blessing that we are here,” Harris said. “It’s wonderful. I love the fact that we are here. It is wonderful to be part of this facility.”
Aretha Shelton is a family service worker at Head Start, along with Kim Collins and Tracey Wiley.
“It feels like a home here,” Shelton said. “I love it here. The teachers have plenty of space. We love it.”
Cafeteria employee Virlia Coleman is glad to have reliable appliances to prepare the children’s meals.
“There was more room at Gabe Mayer but some of that stuff needed fixing,” Coleman said. “The stoves here are more reliable.”
Bernestine Price is a teacher at Head Start.
“I am so happy to be in this facility,” Price said. “This place has a big parking lot and the classrooms are safe for the children.”