By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor
MERCER COUNTY —
Children in Mercer County’s Head Start programs will likely find it harder to get ahead in the upcoming school year as reduced funding will force classes and services to be cut, the agency’s executive director said.
Congress and President Obama last year failed to prevent automatic reductions in the growth of spending, called sequestration. Head Start came under the knife like other federal programs. Mercer County’s Head Start programs just got the word its cuts for the upcoming year starting July 1 will amount to $150,861, said Wilma Torres, executive director of the county’s Head Start programs.
Its programs are Head Start, Early Head Start and Pre K Counts. If no new funds are found, cuts locally will mean:
ä Changing from a five-day-a-week program for children to four days. Children would attend 128 days instead of 160 days.
• Closing two classrooms, a reduction in service for 40 students – 34 in Head Start and six in Early Head Start.
• Moving the Early Head Start program from Mercer to the central administrative office in Farrell.
• Not filling two teacher vacancies and one assistant teacher vacancy and furloughing an assistant teacher.
• Reducing pay for other staff.
• Increases in health insurance costs, worker’s compensation and retirement costs.
“It’s impacting the lives or children and families in Mercer County and that’s very unfortunate,” Torres said.
Head Start programs serve all 12 school districts in the county in 29 classrooms with 110 staff caring for a total of 521 children. While other federal programs might be able to pick up the health-care slack such as Women and Infant Children, those programs do not take place in a pre-school setting, she added.
“Everybody in the nation is in the same boat with Head Start and Early Head Start,’’ Torres said. “We’ve applied for a competitive state grant. We may get it, we may not.’’
Even if the local program manages to get the grants, it still would not be enough to cover Early Head Start reductions, she added.
Community Action Partnership of Mercer County is the grantee for the programs.
“You hear people talking about how sequestration is not a real cut; it is simply a decrease in the amount of a projected increase. In the case of our Head Start programs, it is a real cut and fewer families and children will be served,’’ Community Action CEO Ron Errett said.
Mercer County Head Start and Early Head Start are delegated programs from the Community Action Partnership of Mercer County. It serves as the grantee to the Farrell Area School District, which acts as the delegate.
Getting funds from the school district probably isn’t in the cards, Torres said.
“We have never asked anything of the school districts who are struggling now,’’ she said. They give us space to operate and have been a fantastic partner in allowing us to be there.’’
Created in 1965, Head Start programs have their supporters and detractors. Each side points to various studies over the years to champion their view.
A federak Department of Health and Human Services study completed earlier this year found by the end of the first grade, children who attended Head Start are essentially indistinguishable from a control group of students who didn’t. By the third grade, children who were in Head Start do worse in math and have more problems with social interaction than those not in the program.
Yet a year-earlier study by David Deming of Harvard University showed Head Start children are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college. Further, they are more likely to be in good health as adults and less likely to be arrested.