As federal budget cuts downsize Head Start programs across the country, staff and board members of Head Start serving southwest Iowa band together to ease the impact of what could have otherwise been a devastating blow to early childhood education.
Julie Lang, Head Start director at MATURA Action Corporation based in Creston, said $48,000, or 5.27 percent, was cut from this year’s budget.
As a result, and after much discussion, Head Start board members chose to closed its Corning classroom in June.
“That was pretty devastating to our program,” said Lang. “We’ve never had to close one of our classrooms.”
By closing its classroom in Corning, 15 children and one teacher were displaced.
Head Start programs across the nation serve more than one million children each year. This preschool program is unique because it addresses the whole child when providing services to prepare students to have the skills they need to succeed when they enter kindergarten.
MATURA Head Start works in collaboration with families and community partners to address health, nutrition, education, social, and other areas of service to children and families. The program is required to meet federal guidelines called the Head Start Performance Standards, follows the Head Start Act and is given the Head Start outcomes framework to guide its work in supporting children’s education.
Making a decision “was horrible” Lang said.
“Our decision was based on what community could continue to provide to these families,” she said. “We looked at the family investment program list (families on welfare) and that number was pretty low for Corning.”
Lang said, based on other services available in Corning’s community, Corning was determined to be a community that could “thrive,” should services be removed.
“The (public) school (in Corning) has a 4-year-old preschool, so they had somewhere to go,” said Lang. “For the three year olds, the Hearts and Hugs have a preschool and there are some empowerment or early childhood Iowa preschool scholarships they could utilize to still make sure those families are getting services.”
Lang said making sure alternative services were available to those 15 students was the board’s biggest concern.
“They had a difficult time making that decision, “said Lang. “Because we’ve never had to do that.”
Other determining factors were staff education qualifications, the number of families and students a closure would effect, how many other programs were available in the community and the needs of the families.
“We have a matrix that we use,” said Lang.
According to Lang, the matrix and a family-needs survey were tools used to determine which classroom closed.
“For this past year, we were able to look at those and say, ‘there were a lot of families with a lot of needs at this center, but not so much at that center’.”
Lang said the most frustrating part of the process was cutting funding without compromising the quality of the program.
“Well, how do you do that and continue to pay your teachers?” asked Lang.
Lang said three management-level staff members are taking the summer off unpaid and others working these summer months are “wearing many hats” to pick up the slack.
“Our teachers are here because they love what they do,” said Lang. “It doesn’t pay, and it’s a lot of work.”
Lang said it has become difficult to compete with the school districts in terms of providing a quality work place in the face of sequestration.
“We want them to be educated and then do all this assessing of preschool kids,” said Lang.
Lang said, if money was to come back to the program, she would like to see the Head Start teachers and aides receive a bump in pay.
“We just want to be a good place for people to work and provide good services for children and families,” said Lang. “When they are cutting the dollars, that makes it pretty hard.”
To ease the budget burden, Lang said management and the board decided to end its school year early.
“We didn’t want to do this at all,” said Lang. “But, it wasn’t a matter of ‘if we close,’ it was ‘where’ do we close?”