Sequester cuts hit Head Start

Sequester cuts hit Head Start

Sequestration has meant cuts in funding for many agencies and organizations that receive federal money. But for local Head Start agencies, federal funding cuts literally mean fewer students being served.

In Champaign and Vermilion Counties, 91 fewer children total are attending Head Start because of the cuts.

In Champaign County, nine employees lost their jobs and 47 more have had their hours cut.

Transportation and other Head Start positions have been cut from the agency that serves Ford, Vermilion and Iroquois counties, but Odette Hyatt-Watson, associate director of Educational Services for East Central Illinois Community Action, declined to say how many.

Those cuts are causing Hyatt-Watson to urge citizens to speak out against sequestration, and others to take the issue to legislators.

"More than ever, the community needs to voice their strong thoughts about sequestration, because (it) is definitely affecting what I would consider the least within our community, our children," she said.

A group — including current and former Head Start parents and Kathleen Liffick, director of Head Start and Early Head Start for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission — are planning to visit Congressman Rodney Davis' Champaign office Thursday to ask him to vote toward ending the sequester. (Please see box for more information.)

Head Start is a federal program that prepares children ages birth to 5 from low-income families for school. Around the country, Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide comprehensive services to enrolled children and their families, which include health, nutrition, social services and more.

Sequestration has meant a 5.27 percent nationwide cut for Head Start programs, which totals about $405 million.

Last year, Head Start and Early Head Start served 52,838 Illinois children, according to the National Head Start Association. The association said 1,676 fewer children will be served this year, and 33,410 fewer days of service will be provided to the students who remain in the program.

Liffick, the Champaign County director of Head Start and Early Head Start, said sequestration has meant 44 students have been removed, nine staff members lost their jobs and almost 50 others have seen reduced hours.

The commission administers Head Start in Champaign County.

Those staffing cuts have meant reducing students' time in the classroom, requiring some staff members who don't work directly with students to take furloughs and reducing bus drivers' and administrative staff hours, she said. Hours have also been reduced for teachers who visit students' homes and for family advocates, as well.

Formerly, the program had 123 employees. Now, it has 114 employees, with 47 of those working less than they were before sequestration.

"That's how you save money," Liffick said. "You don't pay as much."

The cuts within Educational Services for East Central Illinois Community Action will be primarily in Danville, Hyatt-Watson said.

In Vermilion County, sequestration cuts have meant 47 students no longer receive Head Start services, Hyatt-Watson said, and cuts in transportation for students attending Head Start at the Family and Community Development Center in Danville.

Her agency has tried to cut strategically, she said, turning six half-day classrooms into three full-day classrooms to try to maintain the quality of the program for students who still attend.

Tests show that attending a full day improves the academic outcomes for children in those classrooms, Hyatt-Watson said.

"We made the cuts so the remaining children that we are serving are at a greater advantage," she said.

However, "47 children are going to enter into the school district who have had no form of exposure to kindergarten readiness and I do worry about those (students)," Hyatt-Watson said. "That's a lot of children."

Her agency also chose to cut transportation at Family and Community Development Center in Danville in hopes that parents will still be able to bring their children to Head Start via public transportation. East Central Illinois Community Action will offer limited reimbursements for parents who bring students to school that way, she said, as long as the students have a high enough attendance rate.

Parents in Ford and Iroquois counties don't have access to public transportation, Hyatt-Watson said, and the agency serves more Head Start and Early Head Start students in Vermilion County, which is why the cuts were focused there. Transportation cuts have meant not replacing or cutting bus drivers who contracted for Head Start, as well, she said.

Hyatt-Watson said the cuts were approved by the Policy Council and Governing Board of East Central Illinois Community Action Agency. The majority of the policy council members are Head Start parents, she said.

In Champaign County, the program also analyzed other costs, such as supplies, but had already cut spending on those areas in recent years in light of rising fuel and facilities costs.

One specific challenge of the funding cut is that it's permanent unless Congress reverses it, Liffick said.

Students who no longer have a spot in the program because of cuts have gone back on the program's waiting list, which now has about 280 students.

The program's staff members have also worked with families whose children were cut from the program to help them find other programs or ways to get their children ready for kindergarten.

Some suggestions include public library story times, community events and church programs that might provide learning experiences, Liffick said. The program may also be able to refer them to other child care resources within the community, she said.

The program has also worked to help parents understand that they can still use services from community agencies Head Start and Early Head Start works with, Liffick said. For example, parents can still use the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District as a resource for vision and hearing screenings and immunizations, even if their child is no longer in Head Start.

However, because many of the families Head Start and Early Head Start serves have low incomes, they might be less likely to be able to pay to find other ways to get their children ready for kindergarten, said Cameron Moore, the CEO of the Regional Planning Commission.

"One of the advantages of Head Start is, it's low-cost program," Moore said. "These really are the children who need this exposure to early childhood education and services more than any other in the community."

He said an ongoing discussion within the community is about providing preschool services to every child.

"How do we do that if we're reducing the number of services available to children now?," Moore said. "How do we go about doing it for everyone if we can't even maintain the current level of enrollment (in Head Start)?"

Liffick said research has show that students who live in poverty are at higher risk for having trouble in school, and outside school, as well.

"Children who participate in a high quality early childhood program are less likely to drop out of school or be involved with the law," she said.

Students who should be receiving Early Head Start or Head Start services may struggle more when they go to school, she said, and "need additional services at that time, (which) may cost more."

"It's our whole community that's affected by this, in both the short- term, as our staff members don't have as much money to spend .. and the long-term , as children (don't) reach their potential as they would have otherwise," Liffick said.

Head Start backers to visit Davis' office

CHAMPAIGN — Several people, including local a Head Start director and current and former Head Start parents, planned to visit the Champaign office of Rep. Rodney Davis at noon Thursday.

The group will also include the executive director of the Illinois Head Start Association and the director of Illinois Fair Share, a grass-roots advocacy group, according to a news release from the latter.

"We are going to discuss the effects that the sequestration had on our program," said Kathleen Liffick, Head Start and Early Head Start director for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

She said she expects the conversation to also cover how Head Start not only supports children, but the stability of working families who rely on the program.

In Champaign County, Head Start classrooms may serve children up to 10 hours a day while their parents work.

"It's important not only for children, but the family's stability and the community," Liffick said. "It's not just, oh, those kids don't get to go a preschool program. There are ramifications."

She said it's an opportunity to share information with Davis about Head Start and hear his thoughts, as well.

"We're still developing our relationship with him," she said.

Those visiting will also "urge him to support a budget that expands the middle class, closes corporate tax loopholes, ends harmful budget cuts and invests in jobs and education," according to the news release.

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