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Head Start Struggles Under Sequestration

Gwendolyn Glenn

Nationwide, federal budget cuts brought on by sequestration eliminated more than 57,000 slots in Head Start, the program for low-income three and four year olds. 

That translated to a loss of $5 million and 500 enrollment slots in Maryland. Last week, state officials approved the use of $4.1 million from a reserve fund to make up for most of the lost federal dollars, but the road ahead is still not smooth for the program on the state and local levels.

Baltimore City lost nearly $1.6 million in federal Head Start funding. City Head Start director Shannon Burroughs-Campbell said they cut 36 of the 3,600 students they city serves and eliminated 26 staff positions. “We cut teachers, teaching assistants, family service coordinators, education coordinators and curriculum specialists and other staff, such as janitorial and maintenance staff and deferring some building maintenance and repair,” Burroughs-Campbell said.

She said classes were cut at three of the city’s 11 Head Start sites, including Dayspring, which serves homeless students. Even with state funds making up for 82 percent of the sequestration cuts, she said she worries that gains in student readiness will decline. Baltimore city Head Start children had a 15 percent point increase over two years in their school readiness when they arrive at kindergarten,” she said. “We went from 61 percent ready to 76 percent ready. These are very low-income children that need a lot of assistance and I think they’ve come a long way with the help of Head Start”

The Y of Central Maryland runs all of the nine Head Start sites in Baltimore County and seven in Baltimore city. The program lost $350,000 and 22 enrollment slots. The Y’s CEO John Hoey said things could get worse. “Those controlling the budget process are calling for deeper cuts. We’ve cut to the bone in terms of our infrastructure and support services,” Hoey said. “We’ve asked people to double up in terms of what they’re doing so as to avoid cutting enrollment but at this point, we’ll have to go there because there’s nothing left to cut.”

The Y’s Head Start director Chris Ader-Soto said 10 percent of Head Start students’ families can be above the poverty level, but that changed this year because of sequestration. “One hundred percent of our kids all meet federal poverty standards,” she said. “And this presents a challenge for families a bit above the federal poverty level but we have had to not accept those kids in the program so we can serve the poorest of the poor.”

  Head Start officials hope to restore some enrollment slots with the new state money. The Y eliminated four positions in the city and five in the county and cut the hours of employees such as Carrie Nease of Essex. Nease had been a receptionist in Baltimore County’s main Head Start offices for three years, but she left because she said she couldn’t afford to go from full-time to part-time work. “Twenty hours a week at less than $50 a day (was not enough) to drive from Essex to Perry Hall,” Nease said. “Then they take taxes out, no benefits, no vacation, no sick time, so if I’m not there, I’m not getting paid.”

Now, Nease home schools her twin boys, who both suffer from hemophilia. And with sons who often have medical emergencies, she needs a full-time job with paid leave. Nonetheless, she’s not sure she would return to Head Start, even if the state money restores her position to full time. “It was a great experience and I loved the people there,” she said. “But I don’t think I’m willing to go back to a place where my job is uncertain.”

That’s because if sequestration remains intact, there will be more cuts next year. Linda Zang, who oversees Head Start for the state education department, says those cuts may not be as bad, but the will still be significant. “Head Start programs were flat funded for many years and a lot of the buildings need work and there a lot of things the program needs money for, she said.

The only options for many low-income parents may be the public school pre-K program. But those rolls are close to capacity as well.