September 2, 2014
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Sequester cuts into early childhood education programs
Jennifer Rodrigues

The federally funded Heat Start program is suffering greatly because of the sequester and as a result, 370 children across the state will not be able to participate in the Head Start program.

Head Start, which is operated out of locations such as Tri-Town Community Action, CHILD Inc. and Comprehensive Community Action Program (CCAP), provides preschool programs for low-income children to prepare them for kindergarten.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of RI Kids Count, said Head Start is a vital program that prepares young students to move on to kindergarten.

“We really are very supportive of high quality preschool experiences,” said Bryant. “Research reaffirms that high quality preschool experiences prepares students to move forward. It’s really a devastating thing.”

Prior to the cuts, Head Start was only able to provide spots for about 2,400 children, according to Bryant. She said that is only 40 percent of the more than 5,000 children who would qualify.

“The federal Head Start program has never been able to serve all the children who qualify,” said Bryant of the program that has been around for nearly 40 years.

The federally funded program has lost a reported $1.3 million for the upcoming school year, and as a result will reduce available spots by 370 across the state. There were waitlists for acceptance to the program before, and now they will only become longer.

As a direct result of the sequester, CHILD Inc. in Warwick had to cut 11 jobs and 48 students from their program.

Joanne McGunagle, CEO of CCAP in Cranston, said her Head Start program lost $110,000 due to the sequester, which resulted in a decrease of 60 spots in the program. She said she already has a waitlist of over 100.

“It’s terrible,” said Bryant. “These are the poorest children in the state. From an education standpoint and an economic development standpoint, it’s a setback.”

Last year, CCAP provided services for 206 students, 20 in the Early Head Start, who are younger than 3, and 186 in Head Start, which provides for children between 3 and 5.

Luckily, McGunagle said no cuts were made to her Early Head Start – the sequester has only effected the program for the older children.

“When the cuts hit in May, we had to cut immediately,” said McGunagle, who said they ended the program three weeks early in May to save money on hours. They will also begin the program three weeks late, starting at the end of September.

“We always tried to follow the school year,” said McGunagle.

She continued to explain that she and her staff attempted to cut in a number of areas, including eight staff members. Staff cuts included teachers and family advocates.

Family advocates in the program serve as social workers, visiting families at their homes before children enter the program and assist in the classroom.

McGunagle also explained that the facility on Atwood Avenue had two buildings, one larger classroom building and a smaller one with classrooms used for children with special needs. That smaller building has been closed and the children moved into the larger building to help with costs.

Also, there have been cuts in supplies and transportation.

The response, according to McGunagle, has been mixed.

“People are not outraged because it doesn’t affect them,” she said. “Where’s the outrage? Where’s the outcry?”

McGunagle said the purpose of Head Start is to introduce young children to a social environment and prepare them for kindergarten but it is also a childcare option that allows parents and guardians to work. There is no charge for Head Start, but the families are living in poverty and need to work to survive. McGunagle said that if parents cannot have their young children in this program, it is like pulling the rug out from under them.

“Parents don’t know what to do. I think a lot of them planned on it because they had older kids who used it,” said McGunagle, pointing out that the traditional day care option is often too expensive. Families only receive help from the Department of Human Services for childcare assistance if they are income eligible.

McGunagle believes these cuts will cause a ripple effect and cost more in the long run.

Maryann Finamore, who is the division director for Westbay Children’s Center in Warwick, believes more cuts are coming.

Although the government does not directly fund the Children’s Center as it does Head Start, it does fund the Center’s parent organization, Westbay Community Action.

“For us, it’s a little more indirect,” said Finamore.

She explained that because of the sequester, all programs under Westbay’s umbrella experienced cuts, however she did not have to cut spots in her child care program as Head Start did because families still pay tuition.

Instead, Finamore said the cuts may affect the amount of scholarships she is able to give out. Most funding for her program comes from the state or tuition; traditionally the federal funds were only used for tuition assistance.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve lost children in the classroom,” said Finamore. “It affects the operating budget.”

Finamore said her facility is licensed by the state, which is wonderful, but that means there is a great deal of upkeep to maintain those standards with less funding, a common issue for non-profits. Although her organization is fine right now and she is very fortunate to have funding from United Way, she said charitable donations are hard to rely on.

“It’s just a domino effect,” said Finamore. “It’s unfortunate.”

Finamore added that her organization is expecting to brace themselves for more cuts. Her hope, however, is that enrollment will not change at the Center.

“We wouldn’t dis-enroll a child. It may end up being we can’t afford enough scholarships,” she said.

Bryant hopes that this setback will be made right for Head Start and for the children who need it.

“I hope there’s still a way this can be solved,” said Bryant. “Congress solved the problem of long lines at airports. This problem should be solved, too.”


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