Head Start faces tough challenges
ALPENA – Northeast Michigan’s Head Start teachers and directors are bracing for budget cuts as a result of sequestration.
After lawmakers failed to reach a deal to prevent widespread federal spending cuts, Head Start provider Northeast Michigan Community Services Agency’s budget for the program lost about $960,000, going from $18,446,000 to $17,487,000, NEMCSA Early Childhood Services Director Linda McGillis said. While the agency is still unsure just how far the cuts will go, teachers and students already saw the effects, and more changes could be on the way.
Head Start programs throughout NEMCSA’s 21-county service area had to end two weeks early, and the agency permanently laid off 10 employees in three classrooms in Bay County, McGillis said. Transportation to some sites have been reduced or eliminated.
Looking ahead, NEMCSA could cut 5-8 percent of its Head Start spaces for children, McGillis said. This means about 217 spaces could be eliminated, although the final numbers are not yet known.
“Most of the reductions will be in the southern part of our service area, mainly because that’s where our greater numbers are,” she said. “The plan I put in place really was focused on keeping as many slots as I possibly could in our northern service area, largely because resources are very scarce in the north.”
Ending its programs two weeks early meant Head Start teachers couldn’t meet all of their program requirements, McGillis said. It also put families into a difficult position, forcing them to find someone else to watch their children for those two weeks.
Head Start focuses on getting youngsters ready for school, and much more, McGillis said. It also offers comprehensive services, including health, dental and mental health screenings. Parents are involved at all levels, and NEMCSA provides referrals to community services as needed. Families have to be at or below the federal poverty level, which varies depending on a family’s size. Of those enrolled, 10 percent can be over the poverty guideline, and 10 percent have to be children with documented special needs.
Younger children in 12 counties, including Alcona, Alpena, Montmorency and Presque Isle, also can enroll in Early Head Start, McGillis said. This program provides prenatal care for expecting mothers and early childhood development services for children up to three years old.
While federal funding for Head Start has been cut, McGillis and others in NEMCSA are hoping to take advantage of increased state funding for Michigan’s Early Childhood programs. By partnering with intermediate school districts, she’s hoping to get eligible families into the Michigan School Readiness Program.
“The fact that sequestration happened is devastating for our programs and children and families,” she said. “The fact that the state has increased early childhood funding has given us a great opportunity to help mitigate those damages.”
McGillis is hoping to work with intermediate school districts, including Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Services District and Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle Educational Services District, to provide an alternative, she said. It’ll help soften the blow, but the state’s program isn’t as comprehensive as Head Start.
Northeast Michigan’s situation is hardly unique. According to the Michigan Head Start Association, the sequester cut a total of $13.7 million from the state’s 38 Head Start grantees. Figures from the White House claim as many as 2,200 Michigan children could lose their spot. Many programs had to close early, and some might have to cut more spaces than originally anticipated.
“Our members are doing everything they can to minimize the impact to children, their families and the staff,” Executive Director Robin Bozek said in an email. “But the reality is that in order to reduce their budgets by 5.27 (percent), most have been forced to reduce the number of children for the 2013-14 school year. We are also concerned about the ripple effect these cuts will have on the community at large.”
Jean Horrocks, assistant Head Start director for NEMCSA’s north end, said she’s hopeful deals with AMA ESD and COP ESD can bring more services to four-year-olds. The details are still in the works, but otherwise she expects cuts to Head Start in the Alpena area to be much the same as those throughout NEMCSA’s service area.
“We’re still working on some sort of planning,” she said. “We kind of have an idea, but we won’t have the specifics and hard numbers for a couple of weeks.”
Even without federal budget cuts, Head Start teachers are used to making the most of their resources, NEMCSA Head Start Family Coordinator Deb Werner said. Family members volunteer to help teachers with classroom activities, and teachers themselves meet regularly to swap classroom and learning materials, as well as ideas.
“Each classroom is given a budget they have to stay in,” she said. “They usually have excess left because we do so much sharing.”
Werner and her coworker, Robyn Hart, will continue to recruit for Head Start until the 2013-14 school year begins in September, she said. Werner can be reached at 358-4644, and Hart at 358-4641.
Terry Pagels, Ella White Elementary School’s lead Head Start teacher, is optimistic she and other teachers will be able to adapt to budget cuts and slot reductions.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s not up to us, that’s something that’s out of our hands, and we’ll still do the best we can for the children and the families that we do have.”