Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Capital Area Head Start limits Harrisburg enrollment as it looks for new classroom space in the city.

Capital Area Head Start provides free pre-k and daycare to hundreds of children from low-income households in Harrisburg. (Photo courtesy of CAHS.)

Capital Area Head Start is in the market for more real estate – and the sooner it finds it, the better.

The organization that provides free pre-K and daycare to almost 700 Harrisburg children will lose some of its current classroom space starting this summer, executive director Jo Pepper said on Wednesday.

The displacement has already forced CAHS to reduce its enrollment slots in Harrisburg for the 2018-19 school year. It still needs to find classroom space for 68 students before programs start on Aug. 20.

“I’m looking for what I’m calling a Band-Aid approach for next year,” Pepper said. “We need to find something now.”

Pepper was told earlier this year that the Harrisburg and Central Dauphin school districts would need to reclaim nine of the classrooms that CAHS currently uses for its programs.

She said that rising enrollments in both districts, due in part to students who migrated to the area from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, have increased demand for their facilities.

CAHS will continue to occupy 20 classrooms in four Harrisburg school district buildings next year, Pepper said. But finding appropriate facility space is a perennial challenge in their high-need areas, such as Allison Hill and South Harrisburg.

The ongoing hunt for facilities has forced the program to move enrollment slots out of the city and into the surrounding suburbs. Harrisburg’s current 666 enrollment spots will decline to 486 for the 2018-19 program year, according to data from CAHS.

Pepper estimated that CAHS has considered more than 100 potential locations in the city since the need for new classrooms arose. The specifications are limiting – classrooms must be on the first floor with an in-room sink, bathrooms, windows and access to outdoor play space. Any facility must be able to accommodate at least two 800-square-foot classrooms.

It’s unlikely that CAHS will find a move-in ready facility by its August deadline, Pepper said. But the need for limited renovations wouldn’t deter them from a spot in a good location.

CAHS currently runs classrooms in churches and community centers. It also uses space at Harrisburg Area Community College’s main campus at Wildwood.

Most landlords charge CAHS a nominal rent or give them the facilities for free, Pepper said. The organization does have a limited budget to pay rent in a new facility, but Pepper declined to specify a rate.

CAHS has already found one new location in Paxtonia that can accommodate 64 children. But Pepper noted that it is not in walking distance for children in Harrisburg’s high-need areas, and CAHS does not provide busing.

TheBurg reported in October that CAHS would occupy classrooms in Hamilton Health Center when it completed a planned expansion this year. The expansion would have enabled the program to redistribute 80 enrollment slots to its Allison Hill program for the 2018-19 school year.

But Pepper said on Wednesday that moving into Hamilton Health was no longer possible.

Hamilton Health officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

CAHS currently provides pre-K programs in seven school districts in Dauphin, Perry and Cumberland counties, Pepper said.

The 17104 zip code, which encompasses Allison Hill and South Harrisburg, has the highest need – and the longest waiting list — of any area served by Capital Area Head Start.

Have a lead on open facility space in Harrisburg? Contact Jo Pepper at

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