As the school year quickly approaches, Head Start programs will have fewer children in their classrooms — but not because administrators don’t want them there.
Wide-ranging federal budget cuts, also known as the sequester, have hit preschool programs hard.
According to the National Head Start Association, the sequestration has forced the worst reductions to the program since its beginning in 1965, and tens of thousands of children nationally will be cut from the Head Start program this fall. Last year, Head Start served more than 66,000 children in New York state; this year it will serve 3,847 fewer.
Programs in Schenectady are among those being cut.
Wendy Hopkinson, senior director of early childhood services at Parsons Child and Family Center in Schenectady, said the cuts are impacting the Early Head Start program, which serves 1- to 3-year-olds but offers other services to younger children and pregnant women.
“Well, due to the sequestration we have to cut 12 children from our program,” she said. “Schenectady has a very large number of people living in poverty. Head Start and Early Head Start are for children living in poverty. People who live in poverty are behind in lots of ways.”
Hopkinson said research shows children living in poverty do not enter kindergarten ready to learn, which has a negative impact on them throughout their educational career. Programs such as Early Head Start and Head Start contribute to school readiness — and in the end, to the community.
“We have a curriculum,” she said. “We work on science, math, social studies … and literacy, and all of those things contribute to our society doing well in school.”
There are currently 110 children enrolled in the city’s Early Head Start program, down from 122 last year. And Hopkinson said there are 110 children on the waiting list.
“We get calls every day, desperate for child care,” she said. “It is horrible.”
The Early Head Start program selects children based on need. Needier ones get priority, and homeless children get top priority.
“Most of the children we accepted recently are homeless,” Hopkinson said.
She added: “It is not just the cutting of the children, it is the cutting of the services,” explaining that many of the children she sees every day come to school famished. Early Head Start feeds them three meals a day.
“When you cut back on programs like this it is a widespread issue,” she said “The kids are hungry. When our kids come in the morning they are starving.”
And the cuts don’t just hurt the children — they hurt staff members too.
“When they see those jobs cuts, it is very discouraging,” Hopkinson said.
The Schenectady Head Start Program, which serves 3- to 5-year-olds, is feeling the cuts as well.
“It is getting harder and harder every year,” said Debra Schimpf, executive director of the Schenectady Community Action Program, which runs Head Start in the city.
SCAP cut nine Head Start workers in June. It was also forced to cut 36 children from the program. The Schenectady Foundation stepped in last March, when federal money was unexpectedly cut from the program, providing funds the program needed to finish the year. But eventually, the cuts were inevitable.
SCAP currently has 285 children in its program, down from 321 last year.
“It is incredibly difficult, because our waiting list is 10 times that number,” Schimpf said. “It is already difficult selecting 321 children out of a list that was at least 100 to 150 more. Families are calling, wanting to get their child in.”
Schimpf said the service Head Start provides is crucial for low-income children, and without it they are at an even greater disadvantage.
“They are going to have a very hard time keeping up with their peers,” she said. “That is going to hurt the communities over a number of years. It is so important how you start out.”
On its website, the National Head Start Association says, “If the sequester is allowed to continue, Head Start programs face even deeper cuts in 2014, and thousands more families will be faced with hard choices about finding safe, healthy learning environments for their young children.”
Hopkinson was more succinct: “More cuts would be devastating,” she said.