Hitting the books has been far from a fairy tale for early childhood education program Head Start these last six months.
Colorado’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs were forced to cut their combined budgets by approximately $4.1 million this year. Those funds are equivalent to dropping 700 children from the program.
The March 1 federal sequester saw nationwide funding cuts for the program that helps support low-income families, which is financed by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Elizabeth Lowe, Summit County Head Start director, said in the last six months she’s had to reduce staff hours in order to meet the new budget requirements.
“We’re still charged with maintaining Head Start performance standards, so we have to try to retain and keep staff,” she said. “It’s a balancing act. I don’t know if the consequences have been actualized yet.”
A survey conducted by the Colorado Head Start Association revealed 25 percent of state programs are planning on closing earlier in the school year and 50 percent of programs plan to have fewer staff.
The Summit County Head Start budget was cut by $32,986. Every program faced reductions of about five percent of their overall budgets, Lowe said — the bigger the program, the bigger the relative cuts.
For many Head Start programs, that means elimination of student slots, transportation, fewer supplies or loss of teacher training.
Currently, Summit County Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve 59 children. Lowe first reduced management staff and summer hours and has yet to cut any students.
“We wanted to make sure the children’s worlds weren’t turned upside down because of the cut,” she said.
Sonny Martyn, a family engagement specialist for Summit County Head Start, said she used to work 36 hours a week, but now only works 32. While she said four hours doesn’t seem like a lot, she’s now left with incomplete work at the of the day.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “Trying to keep up, the staff is really under a crunch. But I haven’t see the kids or families here suffering so far.”
Martyn said one of the challenges when serving low-income and at-risk families is a lack of people advocating for their success.
“They’ve got so much to carry, the families and the kids themselves,” she said. “We want them to be able to focus on the program, to have a better quality of life for the children.”
Lowe said Summit County has significant community support for early education programs. She’s been able to access extra money from the Right Start project, which is funded by a local property tax. There’s also a state education funding reform question on the November ballot, which would fund more preschool programs for at-risk children in Colorado.
“Blanket budget cuts impact our most vulnerable children in Summit County, Colorado and the country,” Lowe said. “We have to invest in early childhood programs if we want to improve our nation’s economic status.”
“We’re still charged with maintaining Head Start performance standards, so we have to try to retain and keep staff. It’s a balancing act. I don’t know if the consequences have been actualized yet.”
Summit County Head Start director