The Grade Blog

Saturday, Apr 06 2013 03:00 PM

Head Start families feeling impact of sequester

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    As the federal sequestration budget cuts kick in, Head Start provider across California are struggling to decide how to absorb the shortfall without hurting children. Community Action Partnership of Kern is cutting its academic year by two weeks to save money, but still more spending reductions are needed to compensate for a 5 percent budget cut.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Five-year-old Nicole Mooney paints a rocketship during her time with the Head Start program at Community Action Partnership of Kern. As the federal sequestration budget cuts kick in, Head Start provider across California are struggling to decide how to absorb the shortfall without hurting children.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Three-year-old Laurali Rawlings works with teacher Angela Gonzales on a interactive computer program in the Head Start program with the Community Action Partnership of Kern facility on Willow Street. As the federal sequestration budget cuts kick in, Head Start providers across California are struggling to decide how to absorb the shortfall without hurting children. Community Action Partnership of Kern is cutting its academic year by two weeks to save money, but still more spending reductions are needed to compensate for a 5 percent budget cut.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

At 29 years old, Sandra Reyes already had hurdles along the path to earning a general education diploma. Congress' inability to reach a budget compromise has thrown up another one.

The mother of a 4-year-old boy has lost two weeks of child care. Her little son, Sergio, is enrolled in the Willow Drive Head Start program, but the preschool is cutting its academic year short two weeks due to federal sequestration.

She's hoping she won't have to quit her schooling.

"I don't want to give up, for my son," Reyes said. "I don't want him to learn to quit. I want to be a good example."

Federal sequestration is the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in fiscal year 2013 that kicked in automatically because Congress wasn't able to reach a budget deal.

The artless cuts weren't meant to happen. The bill that mandated them was designed to motivate quarreling Democrats and Republicans to get a deal done.

Now that the cuts are actually being implemented, programs such as Head Start are feeling the effects in a very direct way.

Head Start is a preschool program that serves low-income families. Locally, it's administered by Community Action Partnership of Kern, a nonprofit health and social services agency that gets 77 percent of its budget from the federal government.

Community Action Partnership of Kern is facing a 5 percent cut in federal funding as a result of the sequester. It will be spread over two years because the federal fiscal year and the academic year do not align perfectly.

Among other things, the agency operates 44 Head Start sites in Kern County that together employ about 550 people and serve 2,592 children.

The school year originally was supposed to end on May 24, but now it's going to end 10 school days earlier on May 10.

That means parents such as father of two Richard Rawlings, 46, have to scramble.

"I had to go to work and explain," he said. "Fortunately they know I have small children. They understood."

Rawlings is lucky that he's a mechanic with flexible hours. His wife is a student at Bakersfield College and has less control over her schedule.

"You might say it's only part-time, what's the big deal, but it gives my wife the opportunity to go to college," Rawlings said. "Four hours a day is a big help."

Even stay-at-home mom Juying Gao, 36, called the shortened school year unfortunate.

She'd rather her 4-year-old be at school learning academic and social skills than sitting at home in front of the television.

"Even nutrition is better," she said. "At home he only wants hot dogs and chicken nuggets, but at school he will try new things because he watches other kids doing it."

The cut affects staff, too.

Karen Miller, 44, is a single mother of college-age children who works at the Seibert Head Start as a family service worker connecting Head Start parents with social services.

Two weeks of pay is "half a monthly budget," Miller said. "I was baffled, a little nervous when I first found out, about how I was going to make up that income."

She's worried for clients, as well.

"I have one parent, she was about to take her G.E.D. test," Miller said. "We provide $50 vouchers for the exam fee for parents in the program, but now that her child won't be in the program anymore she has to cover that out of her own pocket.

"Fifty dollars might not sound like much, but for a single parent on cash aid trying to work her way out of the system, that affects her tremendously."

And this is just the beginning.

Cutting short instruction time will only save Community Action Partnership of Kern about $800,000. It needs to find $1.2 million in reductions to deal with a 5 percent funding cut, said Executive Director Jeremy Tobias.

"There will be more cuts," he said. "All of our programs, not just Head Start, are going to be impacted."

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