Dedication of rebuilt Istrouma Head Start Center set for Tuesday

A fire at the YWCA Istrouma Early Head Start Center in October 2012 destroyed the building and dispersed 48 babies and their young mothers to temporary lodgings for more than a year.

The center, a wing at the HOPE Ministries office at 4643 Winbourne Ave., has since been rebuilt and recently reopened. At 3 p.m. Tuesday, YWCA is holding an official rededication ceremony, in the process honoring a founder of the 16-year-old program, former Istrouma High School Principal Elisha “Tack” Jackson.

So why would a high school principal help start a program aimed primarily at educating very young children, from newborn to 3 years old?

Charlotte Provenza is the program director for the Istrouma early head start center as well as two others in Baton Rouge that YWCA oversees. Provenza, who is retiring soon after 37 years in education, said that Jackson is an important figure in education in north Baton Rouge.

“He’s the father that everybody didn’t have at Istrouma High School,” Provenza said. “He was tough, but he told you what expected. He raised half of north Baton Rouge.”

Jackson and then head of high schools David Corona, now the superintendent in West Baton Rouge Parish, had been pushing for years for ways to help teenage mothers and fathers, who are at great risk of dropping out, to persevere and still obtain a diploma, Provenza said.

The arrival of Early Head Start, a Clinton-era program that expands traditional Head Start to the youngest children, offered an opportunity to do both.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system and YWCA teamed up on a grant to create a program that serves both teenage mothers and their children and YWCA’s version of Early Head Start was born.

Provenza said teenagers who have kids while still in school graduate only about 30 to 40 percent of the time.

“We have an average high school graduation rate of 82 percent over the past 16 years,” she said.

The Early Head Start is small and not cheap. For every four “babies,” there’s one teacher. And parents and children get an array of other help. It costs roughly $14,000 per child per year, Provenza said.

“Our job is to help these mothers and dads stand on their own two feet and make good decisions,” she said.

The YWCA program has fluctuated in size with the flow of federal money. It peaked after Hurricane Katrina, rising again after the 2009 federal stimulus act, shrinking last year after the federal “sequestration” cuts, and likely increasing again as a result of the congressional budget agreement approved earlier this month.

“We’re like a rubber band,” Provenza said.

The reopened Istrouma educates 36 young children, but should return to pre-fire level of 48 later this year, she said. The demand for Early Head Start far outstrips supply; the current waiting list to get into one of YWCA’s three centers is 158.