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Budget Cuts Set Back Head Start

Head Start Family Support Coordinator Marie Stewart, center, and Mallory Pleger look at a photograph of a Augustus St. Gaudens sculpture with Pleger's son Jeffrey, 3, during a preschool session in Lebanon last January. Head Start programs have had to close programs early due to the federal sequestration. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Head Start Family Support Coordinator Marie Stewart, center, and Mallory Pleger look at a photograph of a Augustus St. Gaudens sculpture with Pleger's son Jeffrey, 3, during a preschool session in Lebanon last January. Head Start programs have had to close programs early due to the federal sequestration. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Lebanon — Budget cuts in Washington have resulted in early closures this year for federally-funded preschool programs serving low-income children and families throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, including a Head Start classroom housed in the former School Street School building in downtown Lebanon.

The Lebanon center was just one of the 11 Head Start locations serving 378 children overseen by the nonprofit social services organization Tri-County Community Action Program, which was forced to close its preschool programs two weeks early this year after the state lost about $733,000 in federal Head Start grants due to sequestration. Messages left for Head Start directors at Tri-County Community Action Program were not immediately returned yesterday.

Vermont programs were hit even harder by the sequester, losing nearly $800,000 in federal grants, which Vermont Head Start Collaboration Director Ben Allen estimated would force Head Start programs to eliminate about 125 spaces for children across the state.

Central Vermont Community Action Council Head Start Director Marianne Miller has helped to oversee the federally funded preschool program for 25 years, but said she has never had to deal with anything quite like the federal funding cuts brought by sequestration.

“It’s certainly quite somber,” said Miller. “I think we all feel greatly the weight of this, and the sort of terrible responsibility.”

The sequester triggered a 5-percent across-the-board cut for Head Start programs, but Miller said because the central Vermont organization was already halfway through the fiscal year when they learned of the cut, the impact would be felt twice as hard. Central Vermont Community Action Council serves Washington, Orange, and Lamoille counties.

Miller said the net impact of the sequester for the central Vermont outfit is a loss of nearly $200,000. She said the organization has been forced to eliminate its home-based “early Head Start” services for 115 families over a 9-week span. Additionally, the organization is bracing for an 8-percent cut in the next fiscal year, and will therefore accept 50 fewer children in the fall than the 338 it is currently serving.

“You can see that the impacts are pretty severe,” said Miller.

Ninety percent of Head Start families have incomes at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty guideline, an annual income of $15,510 for a household of two people. The other 10 percent earn between 100 and 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Families with children enrolled in Head Start receive help with child development, disability services, nutritional services, dental and medical care, social and emotional health, housing, employment, and education.

“Whether they’re looking for a job or whether they want to continue their education, we really pull a lot of resources together for the families that are involved,” said Miller.

Manuela Fonseca, an early education coordinator for the state of Vermont, said that there is “irrefutable” evidence that Head Start is effective in addressing the ill affects of systemic poverty by providing learning experiences that cover social as well as academic skills. She noted the difference between the Head Start cutbacks and the recent quick-fix legislation to avoid airline flight delays caused by the sequester that was ushered through Congress late last month.

“I think it’s so unfortunate that there was more of a ruckus about the fact that airlines were being delayed because of sequestration, but I guess young kids don’t have much of a lobbying voice,” said Fonseca.

Miller said that she had been looking at ways to cut the program without laying off employees, but described Head Start as a “labor-intensive program.

“It’s a program about people and it’s delivered by people, so we don’t have that much in non-personnel cuts to eliminate,” she said, adding that she has moved to close two offices — one in Orange County and one in Washington County — but estimated that would only save Central Vermont Community Action Council about $15,000 annually.

Miller added that summer is a “very hard time” for low-income families because they are thrown out of their school-year routines and no longer have the meals program available.

“They are our most vulnerable families and our most vulnerable children,” said Miller. “And children don’t get a second chance.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-321.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Saturday, May 11 edition of the Valley News.

The Head Start program in Lebanon that closed earlier than planned this month because of the federal budget sequester was in the former School Street School building. A story in yesterday's Valley News gave an outdated location.