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Lincoln Oval Park in north Visalia is being considered for conversion into a Head Start preschool. Photo by David Castellon

published on November 21, 2019 - 2:31 PM
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For a relatively tiny parcel of land, Visalia’s Lincoln Oval Park has had a storied history, some of it not so pleasant.

Located in the city’s oldest neighborhood, it started in 1917 as Visalia’s first high school, but over the years, the building was vacated and deteriorated until being torn down in 1951.

From there, city leaders designated the bare parcel a park, though neglect and a lack of infrastructure made it more likely for a time to see livestock grazing on the wild grass than children playing.

In recent years, improvements made the 5.5 acres siting in the middle of a traffic circle — though the shape actually is oval — more park like, but new problems emerged, including large numbers of homeless people gathering there on a daily basis, drug use and prostitution that for years have driven families away, as well as customers from nearby businesses.

A proposal by the Tulare County Office of Education could end those problems.

It involves ending the oval’s status as a park and having TCOE Early Childhood Education lease the land to build a new Head Start center, essentially a preschool for up to 40 children from low-income families.

“It seemed a good way to honor the history of the park and help improve the learning environment for students in that part of town,” said Tim Hire the county’s superintendent of schools.

The proposal involves the construction of two buildings and a parking lot. The plan also would add a couple of play areas while keeping the existing playground. The park’s perimeter would be fully fenced.

“TCOE has thoughtfully designed the Head Start center to enhance the community, provide a safe environment for the students and employees and pay tribute to the history of the area. The location was originally an early school site in Visalia, and we look forward to working with TCOE to reestablish this site into a facility where children can thrive,” states a September report from Visalia city staff to the city council seeking authorization to prepare and submit a report on the matter to the Visalia Parks and Recreation Commission.

“We have no doubt that far more children will benefit from this use of the site on a daily basis than have frequented the park in decades.”

It also describes the proposal to lease the park from the city as a means to “return the park to its former use as a school site and achieve the City’s goal of reinventing that area.

Some merchants around “The Oval” — as many Visalians call the park — declined to comment on the proposal, citing fear of retaliation, But off the record, they said business operators in the area support TCOE’s plans.

Rolando Bermudez, who has owned RB Cuts, a barber shop across the street from The Oval, for just the past year, said Visalia city officials and police have done a lot to clean up the park, including passing an ordinance to prohibit people with shopping carts and rolling baskets full of their possessions from hanging out in the park and a few years ago removing public bathrooms so prostitution and drug use couldn’t occur there.

But still, he said, large numbers of seemingly homeless people hang out at the park, keeping some potential customers of nearby businesses away.

And it’s not just to avoid panhandling, Bermudez said,

“I don’t think the homeless are bad people. But people seem to get the misunderstanding that once people are homeless and this and that, they probably feel that oh, there’s probably a lot of robbing and stealing [occurring], but it’s nothing like that.”

As for altering what The Oval is used for, that largely will depend on whether a $4.16 million grant in federal Head Start funding TCOE has applied for is awarded.

The national Head Start program, operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families.

Currently, 20 Head Start preschool sites exist in Tulare County, but this is the first time TCOE is seeking federal dollars to start one, Hire said.

Hire said the area around The Oval has a lot of children who would benefit from having a Head Start program nearby, and the report to the Visalia City Council notes, “The community around Oval Park is low income, poverty-stricken but contains large numbers of eligible Head Start families. Many community organizations that TCOE collaborates with are also located near the proposed site. These partners include homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, the police substation and other community resources.

“The opportunity to have Head Start classrooms in this part of the city would greatly benefit the families and children in the surrounding area.”

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