Head Start shrinks as sequester takes effect

Funding reductions affect program's partners, too

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Fewer students will be receiving an early childhood boost as sequestration cuts hit those who aren’t even old enough to enter school, let alone vote.

As a result of the automatic federal budget reductions known as the “sequester,” which arose because of a stalemate in Congress regarding how to lower the deficit, Head Start programs across the country are having to slice services. Eastern Iowans aren’t immune to the impact either.

The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, which administers Head Start programming in Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties, will serve 70 fewer children during the 2013-14 school year as the result of a 5.27 percent reduction in federal funding.

“It makes you feel vulnerable,” said Lisa Nagel, a Head Start early childhood teacher at the Cedar Rapids Inn Circle facility, which HACAP operates. “It’s kind of frustrating. You know it’s a quality program and you wish other people believed in it.”

The sequestration cuts mean a loss of $294,595 for HACAP’s Head Start program, which the federal government initially awarded $5.59 million — pre-sequester — for the 2013 fiscal year beginning Jan. 1. With federal level funding reduced to just under $5.30 million, administrators are planning to close seven classrooms and lay off 16 staff members beginning June 1.

“We always want to remain fiscally and structurally sound. That is unfortunately how and why we have to make those tough decisions,” said Christi Regan, director of Head Start and Early Head Start for HACAP.

The impact also trickles down to the program’s partners, including the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, area school districts and public health departments, all of whom are receiving approximately 5 percent less in fees for Head Start services.

Regan said leaders considered a number of factors in determining which classrooms would close, including enrollment, waiting list size, funding capacity and whether or not community members were utilizing those buildings.

Fewer classrooms, smaller staff

Head Start classrooms in the North Benton and Old Main family resource center and the Smith and First Christian Head Start service sites all will be eliminated. The Linn County classes will move to Inn Circle, the North Benton classroom will move to a different room in the same building, and the First Christian students now will go to Waterfront Family Resource Center. HACAP leaders also have decided to no longer use the First Christian center.

Three of those classrooms were not year-round and thus would’ve closed in the summer anyway, Regan said. Of the remaining four, three will move and one toddler room will shift to home visits instead of on-site services.

“We tried to make that as convenient as possible,” Regan said. “For some families, it may be a case of having to travel a little bit farther to receive those services.”

Because Head Start is mandated to offer certain services in order to receive funding, the quality of available services will not diminish even if fewer families can access them, said Tom Rendon, a consultant with the Iowa Head Start State Collaboration Office.

“I would say that in general the philosophy from the (federal) Office of Head Start has been to say that we’re not going to compromise quality,” he said. “If we have to cut, we have to cut slots. Most programs don’t have a choice. … There are certain things that they’ve always had to do and they’ll have to do them.”

Regan estimated that 250 students were set to transition out of the program naturally as a result of going to kindergarten this summer, meaning that current Head Start families do not have to worry about losing their spots in the program. The real issue is that Head Start will only be able to accommodate 600 families for the 2013-14 school year, instead of the 670 staff served in 2012-13. In addition, there will be fewer part-day services.

Regan encouraged families to apply for fall program slots — despite the organization’s 350-child waitlist — which are slated to be assigned by the end of May.

“We still are going to be actively pursuing or recruiting for families to enroll,” she said.

Mixed emotions

There’s always the possibility that the funding could return, which is a shred of optimism to which Nagel is clinging.

“You almost have to be, just for peace of mind,” she said.

Seniority was a factor in the layoffs, which will take the jobs of six management staff and 10 teachers and assistant teachers.

Nagel’s position survived this round of cuts but for the first time in her almost 14 years with HACAP’s Head Start program, she will have to leave the Inn Circle facility for another Linn County location.

“It’s kind of upsetting. Some of the children I have now, I’ve known for four or five years,” she said. “It’s a little sad.”

Head Start — which serves pregnant mothers, their families and children from birth through age 5 through the combined Head Start and Early Head Start programs — is a school readiness program primarily for low-income families who may be facing other obstacles. Nagel expressed concern that the staffing and location shake-ups may negatively impact these children.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these kids don’t have (stability),” she said. “This is where they come to get it. … Some of them will be fine. Some of them will struggle.”

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