Thirty-three children and their families lose services; five staff members lose jobs

Charged with cutting 5.2 percent or $207,000 from their budget as a result of the federal sequester, Kansas Children's Service League will close Head Start facilities in Pratt, Kingman and Stafford counties as of July 31.

No one involved is very happy about it.

Parents whose children were enrolled reacted with "total shock" when told at a meeting last week, according to Eric Pommier, KCSL Head Start director.

"It's a huge impact," he said.

In addition to teaching children skills they need to get ready for kindergarten, Head Start works directly with families to help them develop plans, such as budgeting, earning a GED, learning English as a second language, going back to school to qualify for a better job and learning to be their children's teachers.

Another function is to coordinate all the services a child receives, such as a physical every year, keeping them up to date on immunizations, making sure they see a dentist every year, and getting nutritional and mental health services they need.

Suzan Patton, superintendent for USD 382, whose office is across the hall from Head Start classes, worries that the decision "will come back to haunt us."

Thirty children have been enrolled in Head Start preschool classes at the ACE building, and three more receive in-home Early Head Start services. Five staff members will lose their jobs in Pratt.

Across the state, about 500 children will lose Head Start services.

Pratt, Kingman and Stafford were slated for closure based on analysis of community needs, including poverty and unemployment rates and the availability of other agencies to serve families.

"I would never say there is not a need in those counties, but other programs are in counties with higher needs," Pommier said. "Once we lost Pratt and the infrastructure in Pratt, Kingman and Stafford programs were identified as lower needs and were served by Pratt."

USD 382 operates four half-day preschool sections, two of which are fee-based, and two supported by an early childhood grant. There are some slots available, Patton said, and she estimates that the no-charge sections will be filled by children who were in Head Start. In addition, she said the district would work with Head Start staff to see if some can be placed as peer mentors in the Bridges to Learning classes for children with special needs, and if scholarships would be available for placement in for-fee classes.

It won't be possible to serve all the children, however.

Children who qualify for Head Start are in families with incomes at the federal poverty level, receive cash assistance through TANF (temporary assistance to needy families), have a member on Supplemental Security Income, or are in foster care. Priority is given to children with disabilities.

The cuts to Head Start come even as the Annie M. Casey Foundation released its annual Kids Count Profile, showing that the economic well-being of Kansas children worsened in 2011:

• 19 percent of Kansas children lived in poverty, compared to 15 percent in 2005.

• 25 percent lived in families who lack secure employment, compared to 22 percent in 2008.

• 30 percent lived in households with a high housing cost burden, compared to 26 percent in 2005.

Educational measures have improved, but point out the need for early educational interventions. In 2011,

• 54 percent of children were not attending preschool,

• 64 percent of fourth graders were not proficient in reading, and

• 59 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in math.

"When you start behind in kindergarten, you become disengaged from school, drop out, become involved in drugs and alcohol," Patton said. "There are numerous consequences for not being able to provide these opportunities for children. Research tells us you get the most out these interventions early on. It's what is best for kids and families."

Head Start has been the source of more than 30 years of research, including a Perry Preschool Study that found that " dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education programs by policymakers results in a return of seven dollars in preventative costs associated with incarceration, truancy, school dropout, and teen pregnancy."