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Federal budget cuts result in fewer Pioneer Valley Head Start slots

Northampton's eary childhood coordinator Barbara Black is shown here with  Marcelina Berthiaume, 5, second from left, during a recent gathering at Meadowbrook Apartments. Black says she worries about impending cuts to the Head Start program because it  "picks up the families with the highest needs.”

JERREY ROBERTS

Northampton's eary childhood coordinator Barbara Black is shown here with Marcelina Berthiaume, 5, second from left, during a recent gathering at Meadowbrook Apartments. Black says she worries about impending cuts to the Head Start program because it "picks up the families with the highest needs.” JERREY ROBERTS

The 36-year-old Easthampton resident said she was secure in knowing the two youngest of her four children, Asa, 6 and R.J., 4, were enrolled in the program at Vernon Street while she worked.

Allen, who is chairwoman of Vernon Street’s Head Start Policy Council, is concerned that planned reductions in the region’s program for low-income children resulting from federal sequestration cuts will prevent others from benefiting as she has.

“You see families that need the help that can’t get it and teachers losing their jobs,” she said. “I can’t imagine how those families are going to manage.”

Anat Weisenfreund, who oversees the Head Start program as director of Community Action’s Parent Child Development Center, and Community Action’s Executive Director Clare Higgins said the agency’s federal Head Start grant will drop from $5.9 million this year to $5.6 million for the fiscal year beginning in July — a reduction of 5 percent.

In the wake of those cuts, Community Action, the region’s anti-poverty agency, is reorganizing its Head Start program, resulting in 129 fewer slots for area low-income children this fall.

In Hampshire County, the agency will close its North Amherst and Northampton High School sites, resulting in the loss of about seven or eight slots, according to Barbara Black, the city’s early childhood coordinator. At the same time, the Head Start site at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Florence will expand to a five-day program that can accommodate six additional children.

In Franklin County, Community Action plans to cut 52 of 188 Head Start slots. Community Action officials said the cuts — which account for about 22 percent of this year’s case load across Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties — are necessary to keep the program going after its largely federally funded budget was slashed by 5.27 percent.

Head Start programs provide poor families with free or discounted childcare and early education services along with meals, family support, social and mental health services and job training. Despite the cuts, local officials say, the programs here are expected to maintain or increase their quality of services.

The structural changes made through the reorganization will allow the agency to recruit and retain more teachers, keep class sizes and teacher-child ratios low and pay for repairs to aging facilities, they said.

Black said the national Head Start organization has also made clear that local agencies should not sacrifice quality. “But that means closing classrooms,” she added.

Weisenfreund said the agency had to determine how many children it could afford to serve while also maintaining quality.

“Our commitment here is to provide the best quality we can for people who are poor and struggling,” said Weisenfreund.

It’s important to continue Head Start because, “there are few other alternatives for early childcare in our communities,” said Dayle Doiron, superintendent of the Pioneer Valley Regional school district, which plans to keep its program going with higher tuition after Community Action pulls out.

“Every bit of research indicates that investment in early childhood education pays dividends in terms of student success in school throughout their educational careers,” Doiron added.

There will be 18 fewer Parent Child Development Center employees next year, which accounts for about 9 percent of the total staff and includes teachers, site coordinators and other staff members. Staff who work at sites with closing classrooms will have to reapply for the available jobs, Community Action’s leaders said.

Part of the restructuring also involves increasing pay for area Head Start teachers, whose average annual salary of $26,000 was about $4,000 below the average for Head Start teachers in New England, they said. The new salaries will be just below the region’s $30,000 average — an attempt to reduce a high teacher turnover rate.

Community Action has been following federal and state requests to increase the number of teachers on staff who have bachelor’s degrees, agency officials said. But those teachers are qualified enough to take jobs elsewhere and 25 percent of local Head Start teachers end up leaving for higher-paying jobs each year.

The regional Head Start office, Community Action’s Board of Directors and the Head Start Program Policy Council have all approved the reorganization plan.

“It’s an excellent plan because it sets the foundation for future development and growth when the budget does improve,” said Community Action’s board chairman Anthony Motyl. But he said he is frustrated that federal sequestration cuts are affecting programs that aim to help the poor.

Black, who has spent long years fighting for better access by families to quality childcare and pre-school services, feels the same.

“I’m worried about the families,” she said. “Head Start picks up the families with the highest needs. And it’s free. So cutting slots is really problematic.”

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