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June 17, 2013

Head Start scaling back due to federal sequestration

CULLMAN — Head Start programs across Cullman county and city are grappling with a round of federal funding cuts that will reduce the amount of classrooms available in the 2013-2014 school year.

As part of the ongoing federal sequester, more than 5 percent of the Head Start pre-kindergarten program’s $8.1 billion budget has been cut — effectively eliminating 70,000 slots for low-income children across the nation.

In Cullman County, those cuts will cost two classrooms and three employees. The closures will affect 40 students, spread across the Harmony School and Parkside School campuses.

The county program is managed by Decatur-based Community Action Partnership of North Alabama (CAPNA), which runs similar programs in a total of 12 counties. In Cullman, the office also facilitates Head Start classes at the Child Development Center, Hanceville, Cold Springs, Harmony Parkside and Welti communities.

The cuts translate to an approximate $690,702 decrease for the department’s overall operating budget.

Officials have made students and families affected by the cuts a top priority for placement into nearby programs, but CAPNA Children’s Services Director Kim Dodd said there is no guarantee everyone will be covered next year.

“It’s horrible for the families, and if the parents are working that makes it even harder, because they’ll have to find child care,” she said. “The impact and benefits are immediate for students who attend Head Start, with vocabulary and things like that, and it shows the difference it can have on low-income students. It’s a huge difference, the social and emotional aspects, because if students don’t feel confident going to school it can put them behind.”

Though federal funds were cut, Dodd noted a $9.4 million increase in funding for pre-K at the state level.

“Thank goodness for the state and the legislators, for recognizing the importance of quality childcare,” she said. “We wrote for some of those funds, and you have to learn to do a braiding of federal, state and community funds. By doing that, I feel like we’re being much better stewards of the taxpayer’s money. It behooves us all to do that.”

In the City of Cullman, the Head Start program will be dropping one of its six classrooms, and reducing the amount of students served from 120 to 100 to meet the reduced funding levels. Bus service for Head Start has also been cut. The city Head Start is managed by the Cullman City Schools system, with Cullman Primary School Principal Tricia Culpepper coordinating the program.

The city program will operate on a budget of $873,000 this fall. More than $45,995 was cut due to sequestration.

Despite the reduction, Culpepper said no current Head Start students will be turned away once the fall session begins. In other parts of the nation, some systems have had to use a random lottery to determine which students would be removed due to funding.

“No families are being turned out that were in the program last year, and in fact we’ll be bringing in a few new students, as well,” she said. “We’re very sad to see the cuts come, but we were given some warning this would take place so we’ve been very careful with our budgeting. I feel we’ve done the best we could in a hard situation. We’re so fortunate we didn’t have to cut days, which some systems have had to do. The city school system has been a big help, and we’re actually taking applications now for the fall.”

Culpepper said initial estimates indicate the reduced classroom schedule should still cover the amount of local, low-income students that qualify for the program, as the amount of eligible students is expected to decrease this fall.

“What happened is, when we looked at our assessment update, we found out we did not have as many eligible families as we had in the past,” she said. “We believe we’ll have approximately 96 three-to-four-year-olds eligible, which speaks highly of the economy in the city, with the amount of eligible families going down. If that holds true, we believe it will work out.”

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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