Head Start gets good news

When the federal sequester budget cuts went into effect March 1 of last year, they impacted some of the most vulnerable families in the nation.

As a result of the sequester, Head Start lost over 5 percent of its budget, approximately $400 million, which affected the organization at the start of the 2013-14 school year. The organization, which provides education and social services to low-income families and their children up until age 5, directed regional Head Start centers across the country to either cut staff, cut services, or close their doors altogether.

Last month, however, Congress was able to pass a $1.1 trillion appropriations bill which funds the government through the end of September and restores Head Start funds that were lost in sequester cuts — with some extra money to boot.

“The Head Start community can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief,” read a statement on the National Head Start Association website. “Congress has heard our voices and passed a bill to restore the sequester cut in Head Start. The bill includes a total $1.025 billion increase to Head Start and Early Head Start.”

Mid-Columbia Children’s Council, which is headquartered in Hood River but serves Head Starts in Hood River, Wasco, Skamania, Klickitat and Jefferson counties, was forced to cut $224,000 from its annual budget, according to Executive Director Matthew Solomon, as a result of the sequester.

Two weeks of Head Start services at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year were lost as a result of employee furloughs at MCCC. Even worse, MCCC cut 27 slots from its Head Start programs, meaning 27 children and their families would not get the opportunity to participate in health screenings, Head Start classes, home visiting services, and other programs.

Now that the sequester cuts have ended, Solomon is hopeful MCCC can restore lost services.

“Though it is too early to know how the restoration will be applied, MCCC is very appreciative and will make the best use of the restoration to increase and/or improve the quality of services to children and families,” he said.

Solomon added that the much-needed cash infusion could also help expand Early Head Start — which serves children ages 0-3 as well as their families — through a program called Early Head Start Childcare Partnerships. The partnerships are often formed through Head Start and existing daycare or other childcare facilities, Solomon explained, which receive funding to provide Early Head Start services that they otherwise wouldn’t have offered. Employees of the childcare sites would be trained and certified through Early Head Start. Approximately $500 million was allocated to Early Head Start and childcare partnerships as part of the appropriations bill approved by Congress.

One of the advantages of the partnership is also being able to reach areas, such as Cascade Locks, that are currently devoid of Early Head Start sites. Solomon said children there currently go across the Columbia to Carson to attend Early Head Start. He added that there was “definitely” a demonstrated need for additional Early Head Start services in Hood River County, which could benefit from the childcare partnerships.

“The benefit is you have infrastructure and staff in place, but you don’t have to do the operations,” he said of the partnerships. “It also has to do with space.”

However, the partnerships do mean some added oversight on the part of Early Head Start to ensure the childcare facilities are following the rules.

“The challenge is that the regulations for Head Start are very strict and there are high standards,” Solomon explained. “If these standards are not met, [the childcare facility] could lose their grant.”

Solomon said it would likely be several months before the grant opportunities for the expanded childcare partnerships would be available.

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