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Federal cuts hit Head Start

By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

Federal cuts mandated by the sequestration will mean fewer children in Hays Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

The local program expects to cut approximately 5 percent of its 2013 fiscal year budget, Donna Hudson-Hamilton, Early Childhood Connections director, said last week.

"We are looking at cutting the number of children served," Hudson-Hamilton said.

The cutback could be as much as $75,000, and mean nine fewer children served -- two in Early Head Start and seven in Head Start.

"We've been cutting back, cutting back, cutting back, and at some point, there's just no place to cut back besides the number that you're serving," Hudson-Hamilton said.

Families who meet and exceed the federal poverty guidelines up to 130 percent are eligible for services.

Most of the families in the local program are at or below the guideline, she said.

Currently, 79 children are served in Early Head Start, ages prenatal to 3. Services include home-based programs with weekly visits and home-based and center-based child care for working families.

A total of 133 children ages 3 to 5 are served in the Head Start program.

There is a home-based option, but most are served in a center-based preschool.

There is one Head Start classroom each at O'Loughlin and Washington elementary schools, two at Lincoln and Roosevelt elementary schools, one in Russell and one in Ellis. Head Start also partners with the North Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative in Phillipsburg to serve children in Rooks County.

Home visits are a component of the program even for those families with children in center-based programs. The visits include working on family goals, the child's dental, physical and mental health needs, as well as nutrition.

Early Childhood Connections serves an additional 40 children in the 4-year-old at-risk program now called the Kansas Preschool Program, which receives some state grant funds through the Children's Iniative Fund.

"There's always concerns that those dollars are going to be used for other purposes," Hudson-Hamilton said.

The local Head Start fiscal year starts in July, so there is some time to plan for the cuts.

That could mean cuts in staff or partnerships with other programs such as home providers, the Hays Area Children's Center, other school districts or special education cooperatives.

Not all positions are filled when a staff member leaves.

"We've been doing that already," she said. "Some of our staff is getting stretched as thin as they can get."

Other programs aren't as lucky.

"They're midway through the year, so they're having to look at what they're going to do right now," Hudson-Hamilton said.

Despite the current mandate, it can be reversed, she said.

She encourages people to "speak up for our youngest citizens because they don't have a voice. There's a lot of research to back the importance of educating them early when the brain is beginning to develop."