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Head Start programs enrolling fewer children due to budget cuts

August 11, 2013|By CALEB CALHOUN | caleb.calhoun@herald-mail.com
  • Zhakira Crawford enjoys scrambled eggs, toast, bacon and a banana at Elgin Station Head Start on Elgin Boulevard in Hagerstown. Assistant teacher Gloria McLean prepares to serve another student.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Head Start of Washington County Inc. has laid off some staff members and is enrolling fewer children for the upcoming school year due to budget cuts as a result of sequestration, according to Executive Director Paul Pittman.

The organization, which includes the Early Head Start program for those 3 and younger and the Head Start program for those ages 3 to 5 in the county, was notified in the spring that it will receive $230,275 less for operations than it did in the last fiscal year, Pittman said in a recent conversation.

Sequestration was a series of immediate, across-the-board cuts to both defense and domestic spending that went into effect earlier this year.

As a result of the cuts, 33 more children across the five centers in Washington County will be added to the waiting list, which usually has 75 to 100 people.

Also, staff members have been laid off, other workers have moved from full time to part time, and some vacant positions will not be filled.

“It’s really disappointing to see what everybody expected could never happen, happened,” Pittman said. “They came up with this whole sequestration decision because all sides said it would never come to this, but it has, and unfortunately, low-income children and families are hurt dramatically more.”

A Head Start teacher, Head Start teacher assistant, bus driver, bus aide and four Early Head Start teachers have been laid off, Pittman said. 

Openings for a family service worker, a permanent substitute and a program governance assistance position, which is a staff position that works with parents involved in the program, will not be filled. An administrative specialist and kitchen assistant will move from full-time workers to part-time workers.

For the students already in the program, which usually has nearly 500 students enrolled, Pittman said services will remain the same, including breakfast and lunch, immunizations, dental exams and eye exams.

“We have to maintain the almost 2,000 Head Start performance standards at all times, so even though they cut our funds, we can’t cut our requirements,” Pittman said.

He said because the organization’s fiscal year began Feb. 1 but officials were not notified of the cuts until later in the spring, funding that had already been spent on various resources was being taken away.

“We had to do some assessments, some research in relation to how we could make those cuts and have the least impact on the families and children that we serve,” Pittman said. “We tried to keep our currently enrolled children on as long as we could through this school year, which we were able to do.”

Students are accepted into Head Start based on a ranking system in which points are given to families based on their needs. The ranking system takes into consideration income, circumstances in the family, if there is a single parent, whether the child is a special-needs child and court referrals.

Pittman said the organization can raise funds for certain things, but added that $230,000 is “quite an extensive fundraising goal” and that it is also currently looking to renovate and fix up a couple of the Head Start centers in the county.

“That would be a lot of candy bars to sell,” he said.

The cuts in Head Start also affect the Washington County Strategic Community Impact Plan, or SCIP.

Bradley Sell, executive director for SCIP, said Head Start is a big part of the organization’s first goal, which is that within five years, all students entering kindergarten will be fully ready to learn based on standards set by the Maryland Model for School Readiness.

“We’ve been addressing that goal in various ways throughout the county, and Head Start has played a major role,” Sell said.

Sell said he hopes SCIP can still reach its first goal through other programs in the county, such as the Literacy Task Force for Early Childhood Literacy, learning parties, a reading cafe and Imagination Library, in which more than 1,000 children younger than school age in the county receive one free book a month through a program started by country music singer Dolly Parton.

“It’s a negative, but through other programs, hopefully we can make up for what’s unfortunately happening at Head Start,” he said. “We’re not going to give up.”

Pittman said Head Start could face additional cuts depending on what Congress does over the next few months.

“We’re annually appropriated by Congress, so that means the Senate and House have to agree on a budget, and the president has to sign it, and you know all the circus-like atmosphere in Washington,” he said. “We’re hoping there will not be additional cuts, but we have to prepare for them in case.”

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