KHI News Service

Sequester takes toll on Kansas Head Start programs

By Dave Ranney | April 09, 2013

Lori Alvarado

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Across Kansas, Head Start and Early Head Start programs are bracing for a 5-percent cut in their federal funding due to budget sequestration.

“We’re anticipating the loss of about 475 out of 9,500 slots statewide,” said Lori Alvarado, executive director at the Kansas Head Start Association.

Child Start, Inc., which runs or has a hand in running 17 Head Start and Early Head Start programs in Butler, Greenwood, Harper and Sedgwick counties, last month announced that on May 1 it would lay off nine workers and convert three full-time positions to half-time.

It also plans to reduce by 74 the number of children it accepts into its program. It currently accepts 1,272.

“The good news in all this is that Head Start doesn’t operate in the summer and we should have enough kids aging out of whatever program they’re in now. So we shouldn’t have to drop anyone who’s in the program now,” said Child Start Executive Director Teresa Rupp.

“But the bad news is that when we start up again in the fall, there will be 74 fewer slots,” she said.

Rupp said the Head Start program in Eureka would not reopen. Eureka is in Greenwood County.

“The 15 slots that are there now won’t be there in the fall,” she said. “We’re by no means giving up on Greenwood County. If Congress gets it together and restores the funding, we’ll be back in there.”

‘These children can’t wait’

Early Head Start is for children between 0 and 3 years old; Head Start for those between 3 and 5.

Both programs are committed to providing early childhood development and education in ways meant to ensure that children are ready to learn upon entering kindergarten.

Eligibility is limited to children living in households at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level — about $2,100 a month for a single mother with two children. Waiting lists are commonplace.

Amy Blosser, director of the Early Head Start and Head Start programs in Topeka, said she will be proposing cuts similar to those announced by Child Start.

“Yes, there will be a reduction in staff and, yes, there will be a reduction in slots,” she said. “But that’s about all I can say at this point because the (programs’) governing groups haven’t gotten to weigh in on this yet, and until they do there’s not much I can tell the staff or say publicly. It’s a very unfortunate situation.”

Blosser said the Topeka programs will be hit especially hard because the sequestration reductions took effect five months into their fiscal year.

“Basically, we have seven months — rather than 12 months — to make up for the loss,” she said. “The only way to do that while maintaining quality is through layoffs and serving fewer families. We cannot let quality be affected by this.”

In Topeka, 226 youngsters are enrolled in the Head Start programs; 76 in Early Head Start.

Sequestration is expected to cut almost $3 million from the Kansas programs’ $59.9 million allocation from the federal government.

“You can step back from this and, looking at the big picture, say, ‘Oh, 5 percent isn’t that much,’ or “$3 million isn’t that much,” Rupp said. “But these are children and families that we’re talking about, and these kids are only three years old when they’re three years old. In other words, they can’t wait.”

Reading initiative

In Kansas, the sequestration reductions coincide with Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to improve the state’s fourth grade reading scores by requiring third graders to pass a reading test before being allowed to advance to fourth grade.

Legislators, in turn, agreed to shift the initiative’s focus onto first graders. They’ve also expressed support for early childhood development programs throughout the state.

It remains to be seen whether the programs will receive additional state funding in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Brownback proposed dropping Early Head Start programs from the state’s Children’s Initiative Fund in 2011. The governor last year proposed cutting $12 million from the CIF’s $56 million budget. Both initiatives were unsuccessful.

The CIF is underwritten with proceeds from the state’s master settlement agreement with the nation’s tobacco companies.

Achieving reading proficiency

“When the governor talks about wanting to improve reading scores, we couldn’t be more supportive,” Rupp said. “But at the same time, there have been all kinds of studies that say that exposure to vocabulary in the first five years is a spot-on indicator of reading skills.”

The more words a child knows and understands, she said, the more likely they are to achieve reading proficiency.

“That’s why 0 to 3 (years of age) is such a critical window,’ Rupp said. “If we wait until they’re 5, we’re at a disadvantage, and it’s a persistent disadvantage.”

Wanda Peredoe’s 4-year-old son, Luke, is enrolled in the Head Start program in El Dorado.

“He’s learned so much,” she said. “He was a normal 3-year-old when he started there about six months ago but now he’s singing his ABCs. He’s matured so much in his speech. It’s incredible. My husband and I both read to him but the interaction he gets with other kids is important too.”

Peredoe, who lives in Towanda, said she and her husband are in their 60s. Luke, she said, is adopted.

“We brought him home when he three days old,” Peredoe said. “Our next-youngest child is just turned 30.”

Head Start, she said, has been a life saver.

“You can say that educating a young child is a parent’s responsibility – and that’s true,” she said. “But all of us, I think, need to understand that some parents may have a hard time reading themselves or they may not have the ability to get their child ready for kindergarten.

“For those kids – and there are a lot of them – Head Start is their only out,” Peredoe said. “It means a lot to them.”

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