Watts was still smoldering from the riots in 1965 when Kedren Head Start began serving local families. Today, about 350 Kedren employees care for more than 2,100 children at 32 sites from South Los Angeles and Koreatown to the Eastside.

“All of us work in low-income, dangerous areas,” said Margaret Garcia, a family service advocate at one of Kedren’s multiple Watts facilities. An undercurrent of violence runs through the neighborhoods.

Yet it wasn’t a street gang or random mayhem that blind-sided Garcia. It was the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

On January 21, LACOE Superintendent Arturo Delgado demanded that Kedren CEO John Griffith immediately relinquish the program’s Head Start contracts or the 49-year-old nonprofit agency would be defunded. Griffith buckled under the pressure, setting in motion a LACOE blitz to dismantle Kedren and replace it with other providers by June 30.

That outcome, however, is far from certain. LACOE’s strong-arm tactics stirred an angry response by the Kedren board, parents and members of the Early Childhood Federation of Teachers — from family service advocates and teachers to food service workers and truck drivers.

LACOE began the confrontation by putting forward a list of more than 700 deficiencies when it reviewed Kedren last year. The overwhelming majority of the “findings” bordered on the inane, including dust on the roof of a storage shed and floor tiles that didn’t match. Of the 100 more serious infractions, such as technical problems in recruitment and attendance, many were rectified. LACOE was forced to retract an accusation of fraud.

“Kedren didn’t have a chance to respond to those allegations before LACOE posted them on their public website,” said Mary Najar, who has worked in food services since 1989. 

“We’ve established relationships with a lot of families,” Najar said.

“It’s amazing how much impact you can have on people’s lives. They remember their staff and teachers.”

 —Mary Najar, Food Services Worker, Kedren Head Start

Many Kedren staff members live in the communities they serve, and more than half are former Head Start children or parents. Those connections will be lost if LACOE awards the Kedren contracts to outside agencies.

“It will look on paper like there were no losses, but the truth is the community will suffer,” said early childhood specialist Esmie Grubbs. “No one from LACOE has ever asked parents what their neighborhoods would be like without Kedren.”

Grubbs said AFT Local 1475 members are also asking parents and line-staff how they would improve the work and rectify the problems identified in the LACOE review. “It turns out that most of these deficiencies can be resolved more easily than LACOE thinks,” the AFT staffer said, Now we need LACOE to listen.”

The movement is drawing strong support from community leaders and elected officials from downtown Los Angeles to Washington.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters represents a broad swath of South L.A. served by Kedren, the last of three African American-owned Head Starts that once operated in the area. Waters reminded the LACOE Board in a December letter that the community was harmed when the agency previously defunded programs run by the Urban League and Delta Sigma Theta.

“Do these seemingly abrupt closures speak to your lack of management and supervision?” she asked in the letter. “Should the federal government review your role in determining whether or not you are carrying out your mandate, if in fact you are closing Head Start programs rather than working to maintain them?”

Waters said she was disturbed that LACOE wouldn’t help a Head Start program comply with the rules before moving to shut them down, and opened the door to a deeper investigation.

— By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter