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Sequester cuts hit Head Start programs hard

Little Learners is held Wednesday at Northrup. Pictured, from left, are Nick Bera of Rochester; Awan Abot of Rochester; Kelly Chase of Rochester; Abot Johnson of Rochester; Tijen Bera of Rochester and Erica Schumacher of Rochester.

Abot Johnson has a surefire way to get his 3-year-old son to jump out of bed in the morning. He tells him it's a school day.

His son Awan Abot attends "Little Learners," an Early Head Start program that meets three times a week at Northrop Education Center in Rochester. The program has been a big help not only for his son but for the entire family, Johnson said. He moved to Rochester in 2005 after having fled Sudan's civil war. Not only is his son learning important skills, Johnson gets to attend weekly parenting classes and meet with a teacher twice a month at his home.

"It's wonderful. It's helped my son. He is really enjoying it," he said.

But this fall, fewer area children will get the chance to attend Head Start programs, thanks to federal budget cuts. On March 1, the across-the-board federal cuts known as "sequestration" took effect after President Barack Obama and Congress were unable to reach a budget deal. Most federal programs' budgets were cut by 5.27 percent — including Head Start.

Locally, that means 23 fewer lower-income children will be able to enroll in Head Start and Early Head Start this fall, according to Sandy Simar, Child Care Resource & Referral's Head Start director. The nonprofit oversees Head Start programs in Olmsted and Freeborn counties.To make up for the $200,000 in lost funding, the organization has also laid off three staff members and left a fourth position unfilled. It also has a waiting list of 87 children — a number Simar expects will double by this fall.


"It breaks my heart. It absolutely breaks my heart," Simar said. "I've been in Head Start for 23 years, and this is the first time we've had to cut children in any Head Start program I've been in."

Head Start is a preschool program for children from low-income families focused on school readiness. In order to qualify, a family of four must have an annual income of $23,550 a year or less.

The cuts come as Child Care Resource & Referral and the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester are in the midst of building a new center to expand its Head Start program space.

Statewide, an estimated 648 fewer children will be able to enroll in Head Start and 120 full-time positions will be cut, according to Gayle Kelly, executive director of the Minnesota Head Start Association.

"This is historically the biggest cut that Head Start has ever seen in its 48 years, and it is the beginning of a 10-year process of cuts for sequestration. So we have no idea where this will all end," she said.

Given the political gridlock in Washington, it appears unlikely at this point that Obama and congressional Republicans will be able to hammer out an overall budget deal that restores some of the sequestration cuts.

To lessen the number of children affected by the cuts, some organizations are looking to cut program hours, transportation services and furlough staff to save money. SEMCAC Community Action Agency, which offers Head Start programs in Dodge, Fillmore, Houston, Mower, Steele and Winona counties, is deploying some of those strategies. The agency is eliminating transportation services in Kasson and Ostrander, and required its staff to take a week off without pay, according to Beth Stanford, SEMCAC's Head Start director. Even so, 14 fewer children will be able to enroll in Head Start this fall.

This latest round of cuts follows years of funding for the program, which relies on federal and state dollars.


"In the eight years that we've been here, from when I start to now, we're serving 60 fewer children," Stanford said.

There is one glimmer of hope for Head Start programs. The Minnesota Legislature last session approved $40 million in additional funding for early childhood scholarships. The state's Head Start programs are hoping they may be able to tap into those dollars to make up for some of the cuts.

Simar said Child Care Resource & Referral is optimistic that its program will be given a high priority for the dollars. It could even turn out that those dollars may allow the organization to serve more students than in the past. Other groups are less optimistic. SEMCAC Community Action Agency said they are hoping to get some of the scholarships but aren't counting on it.

There's one other challenge. These scholarships are capped at $5,000, but the cost of Head Start programs generally run between $7,500 and $8,000. That means agencies would have to come up with some matching funds to make up the difference, Kelly said.

Early childhood education advocates say they fear these cuts will lead to much bigger problems down the road, because children who need the extra help won't be getting it.

"You consider that our societies are graying and if we are not taking care of these little ones, we are all going to be hurting," Kelly said. "So it just seems like it's all upside-down in terms of priorities."

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