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Head Start gets new lease on life

On Thursday afternoon, Head Start of Pinellas County purchased the former Glenoak Elementary School for $350,000, officially ending almost three decades of a federally imposed ban on property ownership.

A change in government policy three years ago made that possible, and a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this year made the money available.

"We had to purchase it or lose it," said William S. Fillmore Jr., executive director of Head Start in Pinellas County. The building at 1900 12th St. S was put up for sale by its owner, the Louise Graham Developmental Center Inc., which leased it to Head Start.

"They were good tenants, and we wanted to help them out," said Dr. Frank Leeds, executive director of the Louise Graham Developmental Center, a not-for-profit agency that trains adults with developmental disabilities.

The building, renamed the Fillmore Center two years ago in honor of the 31-year veteran of Head Start locally, consists of 15 classrooms, a cafeteria, conference rooms and a family services center.

The property's 1997 assessed value was $641,200, according to the property appraiser. The board of directors agreed to sell it to Head Start for about half of that, with the balance considered a donation.

The policy change by the federal government reflects an acknowledgment that more flexibility is needed for local agencies.

"We are service providers to lower-income families," says John Lowery, Head Start's administrative manager. "And we prefer community collaborations, not ownership. But sometimes ownership is necessary to provide the best services to the community."

With ownership will come greater stability for the 225 preschoolers and their families who come to the center for "a comprehensive child development program," said Fillmore, that includes readiness, social and health services with an emphasis on parental involvement.

Some of those children were relocated from the Jordan Park Center when lead and asbestos were found in part of that facility, which is owned by the Pinellas County School Board and leased by Head Start for $1 a year.

Because of that building's historic significance as the former Jordan Elementary School, it will be renovated, not torn down, said Lowery.

The Head Start Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and was established locally in 1966 at one facility. Today there are 15 facilities from Tarpon Springs to southern St. Petersburg that serve 1,300 children ages 3 and 4. Its 1998 budget is in excess of $6-million.

Last year the Pinellas program was one of five Head Starts nationally to be given the Program of Excellence Award by the National Head Start Association and the Carnegie Foundation.