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Head Start begins year with fewer slots due to sequester

A empty chairs are displayed recently outside Heartland Agency to signify the loss of funds through sequester for the Head Start program. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — When Head Start classes started on Monday, the program in four area counties had 15 fewer children than it might have before federal budget cuts went into effect this year.

Heartland Community Action Agency had to cut the 15 slots in Meeker, Renville, McLeod and Kandiyohi counties this year, thanks to across-the-board federal budget cuts called the sequester.

At first glance that doesn’t sound like a lot of kids, but the effects of losing those 15 students in class can be far-reaching, according to Cathy Nelson-Messer, child and family development director at Heartland.

That’s 15 or more kids who could start kindergarten with a smaller vocabulary and a few kids whose chronic health concerns may not be addressed.

Heartland administers Head Start services for the four counties. The program provides quality pre-school education programs for children who have a special need and whose families meet income guidelines. The program offers classroom programs and home visits and currently has 276 slots funded by a federal grant.

Parenting education is also provided.

The cuts could have been deeper if not for state scholarships and other funding sources, Nelson-Messer said. The other funding could have been used to increase services, but was needed instead to try to lessen the impact of cuts, she said.

Head Start eliminated one classroom in the Litchfield area and also cut two teaching positions, Nelson-Messer said.

Families who qualify for Head Start have few other options for pre-school programs, she said, and many applicants have been put on waiting lists.

Statewide, 950 Head Start spaces were lost, and nationally, the number is more than 70,000.

The number of children who go without service is estimated to be about 25 percent higher than the number of spaces lost, Nelson-Messer said. When families leave the program mid-year, the space in class is taken by children on the waiting list. That means that the 15 slots lost to Heartland’s program might have served nearly 20 children.

 “It’s not just the child who loses services,” she said. “It’s the family, extended family and community where they live.”

The ripple effect extends to schools that could have more kindergarteners who aren’t ready for kindergarten. Children who enter kindergarten unprepared can face long-term struggles in school.

“Head Start children are on a learning trajectory and making gains,” she said. “The majority meet their school readiness goals.”

The Head Start program screens children for health concerns, routinely finding some children each year who need glasses, have dental problems or have hearing loss. In addition, Head Start helps families gain access to nutrition programs “to make sure their children are eating well.”

Of the 15 children who would have been in those lost slots, “I would guess at least one needs glasses and one has chronic dental needs that aren’t being addressed,” she said. “It’s heartwarming, really, to know you have had a hand in helping a child see the world more clearly.”

The majority of the families who qualify for Head Start have one or two parents who are working, Nelson-Messer said. An increasing number of families are homeless, either staying with friends or in some type of temporary housing.

The sequester cuts could continue at the rate of 5 percent a year for 10 years if Congress doesn’t agree on a new budget, she said. “It is disheartening to think they’re willing to go down that path.” The uncertainty of future funding makes it difficult to plan, and ongoing cuts could decimate the program, she added.

The uncertainty also can get in the way of the program’s goals. “We can’t keep raising expectations and not provide the vehicle with which we can support kids to meet those expectations,” she said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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