June 24, 2013

Budget cuts mean no more Head Start for hundreds of Kansas children

Rhonda Reynolds said her 4-year-old daughter loves school.

Rhonda Reynolds said her 4-year-old daughter loves school.

When she found out she wouldn’t be going back in the fall, Reynolds said, her daughter “wouldn’t stop crying.”

Reynolds lives in Pratt, and the Head Start center her daughter attended last year will close July 1 because of federal budget cuts resulting from the sequester.

“One of the teachers was over here the other day,” Reynolds said. “She was crying, I was crying, my daughter was crying.

“I’m upset, and so are a lot of the parents around here. We want people to know that we really love this program.”

Her daughter attended the Head Start Center of Pratt, which is operated by the Kansas Children’s Service League. The nonprofit’s Head Start facilities in Stafford and Kingman counties will also close July 1. Eric Pommier, KCSL’s Head Start director, said 63 children in those counties will no longer receive services from Head Start or Early Head Start.

“We told parents last week, and their reaction was total shock,” Pommier said.

Head Start is a federally funded program that provides education, health and parental-involvement services to low-income preschool-aged children and families. More than 1.1 million children were enrolled in Head Start in 2012.

Early Head Start serves children from birth to age 3 and is funded primarily at the state level. Households with an income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for Head Start and Early Head Start services. That’s about $2,100 a month for a single mother with two children.

About 500 fewer children in Kansas will receive Head Start services as a result of the budget cuts, said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children. Teresa Rupp, executive director for Child Start, which runs Head Start centers in Sedgwick County, said budget cuts mean 74 fewer children in Sedgwick County will receive Head Start services.

Head Start services encompass more than just child care, Rupp said.

“Child care is the thing that allows many parents to go work,” Rupp said. “Even if they are able to find child care somewhere else, it’s not going to be like Head Start, which also places a strong emphasis on helping families become more self-sufficient.”

Reynolds said her experience squares with Rupp’s assessment.

“People who aren’t familiar with it think that Head Start is like day care, but it’s not,” Reynolds said. “They have one-on-one relationships with the kids, and they reach out to the families. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Cotsoradis said Head Start also has systems in place that ensure kids are getting adequate nutrition, access to health care and early screenings for developmental delays. Parents whose kids are enrolled in Head Start can also take advantage of job search and job training resources, she said.

“If we don’t intervene early, today’s poor children will become tomorrow’s poor adults,” Cotsoradis said. “Without intervention, these are the kids who later grow up needing services like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Medicaid.”

Cotsoradis acknowledged research from the department of Health and Human Services that shows many of the academic benefits of Head Start fade by the time many children reach third or fourth grade. But she also noted that the longevity of those benefits depends on an individual child’s risk factors.

“Frankly, these are shortsighted cuts,” Cotsoradis said. “There are few investments as wise as early childhood interventions.

“The return on every $1 we spend on early childhood is between $7 and $16, depending on the quality and intensity of the intervention and the child’s risk level.”

Reynolds said the teachers at Pratt County Head Start intervened for her daughter at just the right time.

“Her dad passed away last year, and her teachers were so sensitive to her needs and moods,” she said. “They were always asking me if there was something they could do for us.”

Reynolds said her daughter learned how to count from 1 to 100, but that wasn’t the most important thing she got out of her year in Head Start.

“After her dad passed, she really wasn’t socializing well,” she said. “They got her to a place where she was really fitting in.”

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