Local Head Starts scaled back under federal budget cuts

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Pre-k teacher Claudia Cipolla of Wading River reads a story to her students Friday in Riverhead about getting ready for kindergarten. Sitting with the children is Carol Burnett, the Head Start of Long Island's community outreach recruitment coordinator.
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Pre-k teacher Claudia Cipolla of Wading River reads a story to her students Friday in Riverhead about getting ready for kindergarten. Sitting with the children is Carol Burnett, the Head Start of Long Island’s community outreach recruitment coordinator.

In a one-bedroom apartment in Riverhead, 18-year-old mother Jennifer Reyes often lies awake at night wondering how she’ll care for her family.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Jennifer Reyes of Rivehead, 18, with her 3-year-old daughter, Ashley Reyes.
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Jennifer Reyes of Rivehead, 18, with her 3-year-old daughter, Ashley Reyes.

She’s already cut back hours at her retail job to tend to her 3-year-old daughter, Ashley, and she has another baby on the way. Balancing finances and childcare is made all the more challenging by her fiancé’s job, which is seasonal.

Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families, has been a source of comfort for Ms. Reyes in the past. Ashley spends her days learning and socializing at a local center in Riverhead.

“Ashley loves her teachers and her friends here,” Ms. Reyes said with a smile Friday while she awaited her daughter’s moving-up ceremony in one of the center’s classrooms. “She is safe here.”

Ms. Reyes’ smiling face faded to one of worry when she spoke about Ashley’s future and the future of her unborn child.

“It’s really upsetting,” she said.

Head Start programs across the country are facing an uncertain future in the wake of sweeping federal budget cuts that come as part of what’s known in Washington, D.C., as the sequester, which took effect March 1. The Head Start program, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has seen a 5 percent cut in its funding, causing centers to lay off employees, shorten semesters or even shut down.

Friday was the last day for three of the classes at the Riverhead facility, including Ashley’s. The rest of the students will finish June 21, sooner than in previous years due to the cuts. The center will reopen in mid-October, more than a month later than the typical start of the fall semester.

“We’re blessed we’re still here because we thought we wouldn’t make it past June 1,” said Carol Burnett of Jamesport, a community outreach recruitment coordinator for Long Island Head Start. Ms. Burnett had thought the center would close even earlier this spring.

The shortened semesters are leaving many parents like Ms. Reyes scrambling to find alternative childcare.

A baby sitter, Ms. Burnett said, would fail to provide the education, safety and socialization children need during their developmental years. Many of the families that rely on Head Start’s services are at or below the poverty line. Those who cannot afford to stay home from work may try to find an inexpensive — which often also means young and inexperienced — baby sitter as an alternative to the program, Ms. Burnett said.

“Physically, emotionally, we don’t know what type of situation our kids will end up in,” she said.

Riverhead Head Start employees have also had to deal with hardships, or the stress of planning for hardships, due to the cutbacks.

Daniela Perez, who has worked for 10 years as a family advocate at the Riverhead center, is being furloughed until October, a month longer than her typical unpaid summer break. Her daughter also attends the center.

“When we got the news, it was hard for me as an advocate,” Ms. Perez said. “Telling parents we’re going to close early and they’ll need to find help with their kids was hard. It’s affecting me as a worker and a mom because my daughter is out of school earlier. I have to start thinking about where she can go and getting another job until October.”

For the 23 Long Island-based Head Start centers, the cuts meant a loss of $800,000 annually from a budget of $16 million, according to Ms. Burnett. Head Start serves 1,675 children in Suffolk County, 102 at the Riverhead center and 114 at the Southampton center just three miles away.

Hundreds more are on a waiting list for services.

No centers on Long Island will close due to the sequester cuts, Ms. Burnett said, although regional Head Starts elsewhere in the U.S. have closed and consolidated some centers.

“People don’t realize the need for Head Start programs,” she said. “These cuts will be particularly catastrophic.”

Sequestration set in place automatic spending cuts that came as part of the Budget Control Act signed by President Obama in 2011. The cuts are aimed at reducing the federal government’s $1.2 deficit through slashing funding for government departments by billions over the next nine years. The measure went into effect because elected leaders in Washington couldn’t agree on a long-term budget reduction plan. The cuts were designed to be so painful to Americans that elected leaders would have to act to prevent them. They did not.

“There are many harmful effects of sequestration on Long Island, including furloughs and job losses at major employers like the 106th Air Rescue Wing at Gabreski Air Force Base in Westhampton and Stony Brook University,” said Oliver Longwell, a spokesman for Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). “Sequestration is an unnecessary drag on our economic recovery when we should instead be promoting growth with jobs.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson first established Head Start in 1965 as a part of his War on Poverty. It is the only program that survived that effort.

For nearly 50 years, Head Start has helped educate, feed and provide health coverage for low-income children and their families.

Ms. Burnett said the cuts would hurt not only those benefitting directly but the country’s long-term prosperity as well.

“Without access to Head Start there is no safety net in place to help these children be ready to enter and succeed in kindergarten and assist their families in moving toward self-sufficiency,” Ms. Burnett said. “Head Start not only changes lives, but saves lives as well.”

Head Start children are 12 percent less likely to be charged with a crime as adolescents and adults and are more likely to graduate from high school, according Ms. Burnett. The program also provides nutritious meals and resources for children with special needs.

The Head Start nutrition program follows all rules and regulations set by the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program. Mealtimes serve as social and educational activities, Ms. Burnett said.

When a child enrolls in Head Start, steps are taken to assess the child’s health to identify any concerns, Ms. Burnett explained. The screening can identify children who may need further assessment to determine if they need hearing aids, mental health services or special education. The screening process is particularly important for children with disabilities.

Ms. Burnett is calling on federal leaders to solve the problems she believes they themselves created in Washington.

“Elected representatives need to come up with a plan that addresses our long-term deficits without trying to balance the budget on the backs of children and families that had nothing to do with getting us to this point in the first place,” she said.

Mr. Bishop said he would support legislation giving the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services the flexibility to redirect funding to Head Start from other areas in the department’s budget. To date, however, no legislation of that kind has been introduced.

Like that of Head Start, Ms. Reyes said her future is also uncertain.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said. “I’ll probably have to stop working.”

[email protected]