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It’s ‘a sad time’ for Head Start

As a toddler, Dakota Williams had so many delays that he qualified for special education services.

By the time he started kindergarten, Dakota hadn’t merely caught up to his peers—“he was ahead of the game,” said his mom, Christin Taylor.

She credits the federal preschool program Head Start for Dakota’s gains. And his younger brother also is reaping the rewards of the early education program for disadvantaged families.

The program also connected Taylor to social services and helped her get child care assistance, which allowed her to go back to school and to hold a job.

But now Taylor worries that hundreds of kids like hers will be denied the opportunity to attend Head Start because of federal sequestration.

Most Head Start programs lost 5.27 percent of their federal money in those cuts—and more will come this fall if a budget isn’t passed that doesn’t include the steep, across-the-board federal reductions.

Each Head Start program can make its own cuts, which makes it hard to determine exactly how those will impact families in the Fredericksburg area.

In Virginia, child welfare advocates expect to see 647 fewer Head Start slots this year, said Emily Griffey, senior policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children.

Some 112 Head Start employees in Virginia will lose their jobs, Griffey said.

Others will lose pay. And some programs are able to squeak by with just cutting field trips, transportation and other expenses.

In Fredericksburg, the Head Start program had to cut one class of 18 students, plus four employee positions, said Nancy Woodward, program supervisor.

“It’s a sad time when the welfare of children who live at risk of poverty are the ones whose futures are placed in jeopardy by sequestration,” she said. “And the concern for us is that sequestration is not a one-shot deal, it’s a 10-year series of cuts.”

Fredericksburg’s program also runs Head Start classes in King George County, where mom Danielle Langin literally saw magic happen for her family.

When her oldest son, Blake, started the early education program, he would get frustrated easily and start screaming.

Langin didn’t know how to calm her son. But Head Start teachers used a discipline technique known as 1–2–3 Magic. They taught Langin to use it, too.

And they taught Blake to count, to write his name and to say “please” and “thank you.” He starts kindergarten this fall, and Langin feels confident that Blake is well-prepared.

Without Head Start, she said, Blake would have started out behind his peers.

And that’s why early education is so crucial, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a webchat with reporters this week.

The average child starts kindergarten about 14 months behind, Duncan said.

The Obama administration has been pushing for universal preschool, proposing to pay for the early education with a tax on tobacco.

At the same time the federal government pushes for more preschool, Head Start programs across the country are slashing programs because of sequestration. Nationwide, about 70,000 slots will be lost to the sequester.

Given the national picture, Stafford County seems to be in a good position—the Head Start program will lose just two slots and won’t lay off any employees, said Director Kathryn Massie.

But just a few months ago, she envisioned starting the fall with five more classes—about 90 more preschoolers.

She was able to stave off most cuts by leveraging money from the Virginia Preschool Initiative. That state money was expected to help Stafford expand its early education offerings, but School Board members voted against the proposed expansion instead of ponying up the local dollars required to match the state money.

“We’re very fortunate that we’re still able to hang on to the children we have,” Massie said.

But she’s already bracing for the next 5.27 percent cut expected in the coming fiscal year.

Carol Flenard, assistant superintendent of instruction for Spotsylvania County Schools, said that while their Head Start program’s budget was trimmed 5.27 percent due to sequestration, they did not want to reduce the number of students in the program.

One staff member was lost due to the budget decrease but was repositioned for a local school position and is still working with preschool students.

The district currently has 96 students in seven Head Start classes.

Fauquier County’s Head Start was also able to avoid cutting children’s slots for the coming year, but the program did lose two employees. And those still with the program will see a pay cut, said Executive Director Pat Washington.

She said cuts to Head Start didn’t make sense.

“We’re here to make a difference, and the children need the program,” Washington said.

While Head Start’s critics have questioned the long-term affects of the program, advocates say it gives disadvantaged children a level playing field in early education.

“We want to make sure kids are ready to graduate and to enter the workforce,” Griffey said. “So we need to make sure these kids enter school ready to learn.”

Staff writer Lindley Estes contributed to this report.

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973