After funding cuts, Head Start serving fewer kids locally


Tiamya Lockhardt joins classmates in putting together puzzles at the Terwilliger Head Start program in Gainesville on August 28, 2013.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.

If not for Head Start, hundreds of children in Alachua County could go hungry and risk starting school far below the academic level of their more affluent peers.

But in spite of the good the federally funded program has done for the most vulnerable children across the country, funding cuts as a result of the federal sequester earlier this year are forcing local Head Start centers to pare down their services.

In Alachua County, that means 40 fewer students, seven fewer teachers and two fewer classrooms.

"We have tried to maintain the integrity of the program," said Ann Crowell, director of Head Start services for Alachua County.

Head Start is a free, federally funded school-readiness program for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families or who have disabilities, are in foster care, homeless or otherwise at-risk.

Crowell said the program heard at the end of 2012 it would have to cut back by 5 percent.

This spring, she said, another 2.7 percent was chopped from the budget, bringing the total cuts locally to $242,000.

As a result, the Alachua County Head Start program will serve 600 students this year, down from 640 last year.

Two classrooms were eliminated at Prairie View Academy, one of 12 Head Start sites in the county. No employees were laid off, but seven open positions were eliminated.

"We planned as best we could for the cuts," Crowell said.

Future funding cuts are a concern, she said. About 250 families are already on the waiting list to get their children into a Head Start program.

If funding decreases again next year, there will be more cutbacks.

As far back as she can remember, Crowell said this was the most serious cut Head Start has taken.

"We're waiting, just like everybody else is, to hear the next step," she said.

Felicia Bryant's 4-year-old daughter, Khloe Webster, just started her second year in Head Start at Terwilliger Elementary.

Bryant, who works full time at the mall, said without the program, it would be difficult for her to cover the cost of day care for Khloe.

Bryant was eager to get Khloe into Head Start after she saw what the program did for her son Jonathan Webster, now 6 years old.

Jonathan had been in day care as a toddler, Bryant said, but she got him into Head Start for one year.

Right away, she said, he was learning how to spell and how to write his name.

"He learned a lot more in two weeks at Head Start than he did in months of day care," Bryant said.

While day care is an option for some, not all parents can afford it.

Children might be left in the care of family members or friends, or stay home with an older sibling all day.

When they get to kindergarten, Head Start instructors say, children from low-income families tend to be behind their peers who come from more affluent backgrounds, where parents might be better equipped to expose them to learning at an early age.

Glenda Davis has been an instructor in Alachua County's Head Start program for 4 years, and she said she has seen the benefit to the children.

Cutting program spots down from 640 to 600 might not seem like a big deal to some.

But Davis sees something else.

"Forty children who are going to be lost," she said. "That's how I look at it."

Davis said she took things for granted when she started in the program.

In many homes where her students live, "a newspaper, a magazine, a book is not there."

One of Head Start's partnerships is with the Alachua County Library District, which visits the schools to read to the children and sends them home with books.

For some children, she said, "the only meals they get (are) breakfast, lunch and a snack when they come to Head Start, and we know that."

Davis said people sometimes forget Head Start is a school-readiness program, with a set curriculum, not a free baby-sitting service. At an age-appropriate level, students get a base in literacy, math, science, social studies and geography.

"I think those in Washington need to come down here and walk in my shoes for a month," Davis said. "You don't need to be making cuts to this program. If anything, you need to be putting more money into this program."

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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