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Head Start cuts hit home locally

GREENFIELD — In the wake of federal spending cuts and a need to increase quality, anti-poverty agency Community Action is reorganizing its “Head Start” program — resulting in 129 fewer poor children across the Pioneer Valley who will be able to enroll in the free or discounted preschool/childcare service this fall.

In Franklin County, the agency will cut 52 of 188 Head Start slots. One of two Orange classrooms will close and the agency will pull out of a two-classroom collaboration with the Pioneer Valley Regional School District — although school officials there say that preschool programs at the Northfield and Bernardston elementary schools will continue with a higher tuition cost.

Community Action officials said that the cuts — which account for about 22 percent of this year’s case load across Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties — are necessary to keep the program going after its highly federally funded budget was slashed by 5.27 percent.

And they said that even with less money, local Head Start programs, which provide poor families with free or discounted childcare and early education services along with meals, family support, social and mental health services, job training and more, are expected to maintain or increase their quality of services. There’s been increased monitoring from the regional Office of Head Start.

The structural changes made through the reorganization will allow the agency to recruit and retain more teachers, keep class sizes and teacher-child ratios low and pay for repairs to aging facilities, they said.

Anat Weisenfreund, who oversees the program as director of Community Action’s Parent Child Development Center, said that the agency had to determine how many children it could afford to serve while running the highest quality program possible.

“A lot of times the poorer you are and the less resources you have, you end up not having the same quality services as parents who can afford to pay for childcare,” said Weisenfreund.

“Really our commitment here is to provide the best quality we can for people who are poor and struggling,” she said. “It’s just ... not right to provide anything less than good quality.”

Northfield, Bernardston preschools continuing

Community Action is accepting 103 fewer students into its program this year — which is where the agency will make up most of the 129 cut slots.

Officials are working with families to find alternative solutions for the remaining 26 children who are currently enrolled in the program but can’t be served next year.

Twelve of those slots are preschoolers from Northfield and Bernardston who were funded through the collaboration between Community Action’s Parent Child Development Center and Pioneer Valley Regional. There are 15 students attending each preschool there this year.

Dayle Doiron, that school district’s superintendent, said that the preschools will continue with a maximum of 15 slots at each of the two elementary schools. There will be one teacher and a paraprofessional in each classroom (as opposed to two teachers this year) and tuition will increase slightly (3.5 percent) for parents — cost-saving measures that should cover the difference of the district having to pay for it without help from the Parent Child Development Center, she said.

It was important to continue the program, said Doiron, because “there are few other alternatives for early education childcare in our communities.”

“Every bit of research indicates that investment in early childhood education pays dividends in terms of student success in school throughout their educational careers,” she said. “It makes absolute sense to offer high quality early childhood programs from a school’s perspective.”

Changes to Head Start program

Weisenfreund and Community Action Executive Director Clare Higgins said that the agency will receive a $5.6 million Head Start grant this year — compared to a $5.9 million one last year.

There will be 18 fewer Parent Child Development Center employees next year, which accounts for about 9 percent of the total staff and includes teachers, site coordinators and other staff members.

Staff who work at sites with closing classrooms will have to reapply for the available jobs, they said.

Part of the restructuring involves increasing the pay for teachers, whose average $26,000 salary was about $4,000 less than that of the average Head Start teacher in New England, they said. The new salaries will be just below the $30,000 average, an attempt to reduce a high teacher turnover rate.

Community Action has been following federal and state requests to increase the number of teachers on staff who have bachelor’s degrees, agency officials said. But those teachers are qualified enough to take jobs elsewhere and 25 percent of local Head Start teachers leave for higher-paying jobs each year, they said.

The program will start slightly later this year, on Sept. 30. And the classrooms will all be more uniform in size: about 15 to 16 children supervised by three faculty members.

The agency has also decided to put more money into building repairs and maintenance as well as bringing back transportation services that had been cut two years ago in Ware.

Slight cuts are also being made across the entire coverage area for children who are visited by educators in their own home (12 slots) and those attend a family child care practice (15 slots). Those children may still be able to receive care, but won’t be covered by Head Start.

But most Franklin County classrooms will remain intact: two full-day, full-year classrooms at Washington Street in Greenfield; two full-day, full-year classrooms at G Street in Turners Falls; and two half-day classrooms at Central Street in Turners Falls. Some of those classrooms have alternate funding sources in addition to Head Start.

Governing boards sign off

The regional Head Start office, Community Action’s Board of Directors and the Head Start Program Policy Council have all approved the reorganization plan.

“It’s an excellent plan because it sets the foundation for future development and growth when the budget does improve,” said Community Action’s board chairman Anthony Motyl, adding that he is frustrated that the federal “sequestration” spending cuts are affecting programs that aim to help the poor.

Despite the difficult cuts, the plan still is providing quality care to those who need it the most, said Jennifer Allen, chairwoman of the policy council.

The Easthampton resident has had two sons attend the program in Northampton. She said the program not only provided her children with a good education, social experience and good food each day, but it also connected her with her first job in six years.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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