@hedtb36:Looking to save Head Start

@by:By Wm. Shawn Weigel

@bod:Federally-funded programs like Head Start and Early Intervention -- which provide subsidized daycare services and specialized care for special needs preschoolers, respectively -- have experienced crippling budget cuts for the current fiscal year.

But as Early Intervention faces a complete shutdown without the necessary funds, efforts to partner with local daycare facilities may prevent Head Start from slipping into a similar fiduciary limbo.

According to Leon Spencer, Head Start program supervisor for the Chester County Intermediate Unit that oversees the administration of the countywide program, all of the Head Start programs nationally are experiencing a 1 percent "de-funding." The reduction, however, should not have an immediate effect on any local Head Start centers, including the one located at the Kennett Presbyterian Church on Broad Street in Kennett Square.

"At this point, we're not closing down by any means," Spencer said. "What we have to do is look for ways to be more fiscally sound, find ways to continue having quality programs without operating in the red."

Head Start provides preschool services for low-income families. Children aged 3 to 5 years old are eligible for the program, which also supplies health and dental screenings along with developmentally appropriate educational services. The Department of Children, Youth and Families provide monies for the federally funded program. There are no fees for eligible families and their children.

While the program's administrators struggle to balance the books, there vast numbers of children who qualify for the program who are, for a variety of reasons, not participating.

"Through our assessments there are over 1,200 children who would be eligible for the Head Start program, determined by age and income level," Spencer said. "We're currently serving 439 of them."

At the Kennett Square Head Start, located at the Presbyterian Church, there are two classrooms, both at capacity with 17 children per room per session -- a.m. and p.m. the classrooms are packed to within legal occupancy restrictions.

Spencer said it was a safe bet that there are kids who would benefit from the program who will not make it off of the waiting list.

Spencer explained that $2,639,493 awarded to the CCIU for the Head Start program for the current fiscal year would be reduced somewhere between $26,000 and $27,000.

With a fiscal year that runs from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30, the program is currently facing a $35,000 deficit for 2005. This is the second year in a row that the program has been in the red, when last year it was estimated to be operating at a $50,000 loss, that is until field trips and other minor expenditures were cut from the program. An in-house inventory of available supplies also returned some grim numbers.

"There's no surplus ever," Spencer said. "We're not going to do anything to deter our current services, but we cannot afford to acquire additional anything -- it's down to the bone."

Cutbacks for this and other subsidized programs are suffering across the board according to various reports, some of which Spencer has read first-hand.

"The general response is, instead of programs like ours, [the government] needs these extra funds for the national defense fund," Spencer said in a phone interview last week. "And this isn't me talking. I've read literature from the national Head Start association [and others] ... publications that suggest with all certainty that that's where funds are going."

Spencer said that some of the deficit could be offset through the state-controlled Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program, which was only recently created to help offset program expenditures on the state level.

"That was a significant event there, because prior to two years ago, Pennsylvania was one of 13 other states that had no funds available for these programs," Spencer said. "Through the HSSAP, we're able to apply to the state to help offset what the federal government can't give us."

The HSSAP budget for this year is currently at $30 million; a new proposal from Gov. Ed Rendell would add another $15 million for the following year.

"Obviously we're very excited and anxious, because it would certainly make a difference for this program," Spencer said.

Meanwhile, Rendell is also holding the fate of the Early Intervention program in his hands as well, with CCIU director John Baillie awaiting a decision from the governor's office about the EI program's much-needed $1.05 million.

"The only problem with that, is he's proposed inadequate money for next year, so we'll be right back where we are again," Baillie said.

One of the options Spencer has been exploring is co-opting the program with daycare centers that are part of subsidized daycare programs, entering into a partnership with an existing center and sharing the costs. Most recently he drafted a proposal where Head Start would do just that with Coatesville Day Care, and there is an existing arrangement with the CCIU's toddler center, which Spencer said is perfect for the program.

"We can provide Head Start educational services in the daycare center and we would share the costs," Spencer said. "It also means that the parent that's working - for people who have no place to put their kids -- the child is not only getting daycare, they're getting other Head Start services [like] health, nutrition and education."

Spencer said he is very confident with the proposal for the Coatesville Center, saying that the deal "is going to happen." He also said that similar programs have been "discussed but not proposed" for the Kennett Square region.

According to United Way of Southern Chester County Executive Director Carrie Freeman, centers like the Tock Tock Early Learning Center in Toughkenamon, which works with various programs to provide state-subsidized day care for eligible parents, would be perfect for just such an arrangement.

"I know that currently, Tick Tock handles a lot of Head Start kids already," Freeman said. Since Head Start is a half-day program, eligible parents who need daylong childcare already have their children picked up or dropped off at either location, depending on the circumstances.

"It's ideally suited," said Freeman. "They have a really academically-focused program there. It truly is an education center. And they are essentially doing the [Head Start educational] program anyway, so that would be a beautiful mesh, I think."

Spencer also mentioned a discussion he'd had with a member of Rural Opportunities Inc., of Philadelphia, where the topic had been about a separate Head Start program for the children of migrant workers. Spencer said he had suggested combining the two programs instead of having two separate entities after examining the demographics of the Kennett Square Head Start programs.

"I thought, 'Why don't we put the two together?'" Spencer said. "'Especially when you look of make up of the Head Start in Kennett, where 90 percent [of kids in the program] are Latino.' They [Rural Opportunities] said "You're absolutely right.'"

Although a program of that sort is still in the earliest stages of planning and discussion, it is exactly the type of cooperative effort that could preserve and one day possibly expand the Head Start program.

"These are the kinds of things we need to do to keep this thing rolling," Spencer said. "If we can pull our resources, we can service more kids and keep ourselves out of the red."

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