Absaroka Head Start in Sheridan will close at the end of May due to the lack of a permanent location and its inability to meet strict licensing regulations and requirements on a limited budget.
May 24 will be the last day for children and May 31 will be the final day for staff. The program serves young children — mainly 3- and 4-year-olds — at its temporary location in the Sheridan railroad depot at Broadway and Fifth streets.
Head Start director Amber Clark said the company’s board and policy council made the decision in February.
“We have no facility,” Clark said. “The one we are in is strictly temporary. There’s one tiny classroom that doesn’t accommodate all the kids that we’re funded for. No kitchen, no playground, no office. It’s worked temporarily, but we’re only serving 24 to 26 kids there and we’re funded for 35 to 40 kids.”
Clark said the board made its decision in February because its federal grant application is due in the coming months. Head Start is part of the Administration for Children and Families, which is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“We had to have a plan for what we’re going to write into the grant,” Clark said. “There’s a huge difference between writing a grant for Sheridan and writing a grant without Sheridan, so that’s why the decision had to be made when it did.”
Absaroka Head Start had a full-time employee search for possible permanent locations but couldn’t find one that met all of the separate demands.
“We’ve been looking for a permanent space for over two years now, basically, and just have not been able to find anything,” Clark said.
Parents with children enrolled in the program found out about the closure March 2. Most parents said it was a bit shocking and have been sympathizing with each other this month.
There are other early childhood options in town, but parents like Kara Sampey, who has a daughter in the program, said they chose Absaroka for its convenience and affordability.
“We’re all in the same spot of, ‘OK, if they close, what are we going to do now?’” Sampey said.
Absaroka Head Start has been in Sheridan for at least 22 years. Most of that time, it was located in the Westland Church. It moved to the old Highland Park building in spring 2016, which didn’t have a kitchen either. When that building was condemned last year, the program had to find a short-term home.
Currently, the program offers two half-day classes, one from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and the other from noon to 3:30 p.m. A normal day involves the children writing, learning the alphabet, eating breakfast or lunch, listening to stories, having a snack and working together on various tasks.
According to parents, the personal interaction and structured activities have made an excellent combination.
“Without not only the socializing, but the learning aspect, my daughter will go crazy,” Amanda Lawrence said.
Amber Cossel, who has a son in the program, expressed her frustration over the failure to find a permanent building.
“When I talked to [Clark,] that’s how she made it sound, is that our branch was a waste of their time and they didn’t want to put any effort into it anymore,” Cossel said.
“It’s not for lack of trying,” Clark said. “I don’t want to sound like, ‘No, no matter what you say we’re not going back there.’ But we had to make the decision and we have to move forward for at least this year.”
The parents have tried reaching out to friends, family, acquaintances and public officials to find a last-second home for the program, but no substantial progress has been made.
“It’s kind of frustrating when it seems like no one in the community knows what’s going on with something this extreme,” Lawrence said. “We need to figure this out, because I know Sheridan can rally together and do something.”
Despite efforts from the program and parents, it appears Absaroka Head Start in Sheridan won’t be open for the 2018-19 school year.
“I don’t want to be the person that sounds like, ‘No, I’m totally not going to consider anything,’” Clark said. “If magically a facility came about, I guess we’d have to go back to our board and policy council, but the decision was voted and approved by both, so it’s kind of a done deal.”
Unless something drastic occurs, Absaroka Head Start will be closed for at least the upcoming year. However, Clark didn’t rule out the possibility of eventually reopening a location in Sheridan.