Head Start Sees Setbacks

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At the center-based Head Start program, children and their guardians celebrated the end of their school year on the back patio. Little ones posed with their rolled-up paper diplomas as family members proudly took pictures.

Friday was the center’s last day, one week earlier than what Chris DeLamatre, who oversees Head Start at Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, had originally planned. She had to shorten the school year because the sequester cut $206,000, or 5.27 percent, from her roughly $4 million budget.

“Because the cuts go into place during our current funding year, we’re taking bigger cuts this year,” DeLamatre said.

Statewide, that means approximately 70,000 children will lose access to Head Start services because of the reduction, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is the agency that funds the program.

For the local center-based Head Start program, DeLamatre had to cut 34 slots for the fall — 17 in Nelsonville and another 17 in Laurelville.

And that’s after the agency’s proactive steps, she said. Because she and her colleagues knew at least 5 percent cuts were likely coming, her team kept some positions open and restructured internally to be more efficient. One staff member voluntarily reduced work hours. Some transferred to other programs. Summer work hours for others have been reduced.

Still, at least one job was cut from the Nelsonville center.

“To be honest, if I’d know it was going to be 5.27 percent, we would have cut even more,” DeLamatre said, adding she was initially told that, if the cuts came, they’d be no more than 5 percent. “The .27 doesn’t sound like much, but it is in the grand scheme of things when our budget is as tight as it is.”

“It’s awful for these families,” she added. “No program in these communities has the capacity to pick up these children.”

Studies have shown a high return on investment in early childhood programming, according to James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

Few programs have the rate of return as early childhood investment, Heckman has said. The outcomes, he said, result in the reduction on crime, promotion of schooling and a skilled workforce.

“The majority of the children we serve are already at risk,” said Angie Smith, the center coordinator in Nelsonville, “and these are the children that we’re cutting and that’s sad. Sometimes our kids come here hungry. Where do parents turn when they need something? I’m worried about where those families are going to go for support.”

The comprehensive program, which offers health screenings and other family support services, mostly serves those living at 100 percent of poverty or less. These days, that equates to a family of four living on $23,550, or a family of two living on $15,500.

This is the poorest of the poor, explained DeLamatre.

Grandparents with custody of their grandchildren, however, have an “automatic in,” said Smith, regardless of income.

Terry and Jody Cook, of Nelsonville, have raised their grandson Trenton since birth. Their daughter is currently incarcerated for a felony, and the boy’s father “isn’t in the picture,” Terry said. Terry is disabled and Jody works full-time. They said Trenton, 3, has improved his social skills since he’s started the program.

When asked about the cuts to the program, Terry said Trenton is losing his favorite teacher, “so we don’t like that at all.”

Due to the cuts, teacher Frankie Lent will be transferring to the Athens Head Start.

“I’m glad to have a job,” Lent said. “But it’s sad. I’ve gotten close to these little ones.”

Although the program has fewer slots in the fall, the centers are still enrolling, Smith said. Those interested in applying should contact the center at 753-9404.