Invest in education from the Head Start, reminds Nydia

Cutting federal funding to pre-school for the poorest (and youngest) Americans is a rotten idea, says Nydia Velazquez.

On February 18, Congresswoman Velazquez delivered a statement regarding the proposed budget cuts to education in the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Appropriations Act and said, “New York City Head Start would lose almost $30 million in funding under this bill. As we build a workforce for the future, cutting services that prepare children to learn is not just immoral, it is unwise.”

But why?

According to Nina Piros, the Director of Childhood Programs at University Settlement’s Early Childhood Center in the Lower East Side whose Head Start has 170 students, for most of these kids, there is no other option.

To qualify for Head Start, a federally funded program run by Department of Health and Human Services that started in 1965, a family must be at 100% poverty line. For a family of four, that means an income of $22,050.

“Without subsidized childcare, many these children (who were born in the US) would be sent back to their parent’s countries to stay with some relative there until they reach public school age.” (70% of the children at University Settlement Head Start from East Asian countries, mainly China) “This is very common and it is traumatic for a child,” says Piros

Another option, Piros says, is they’d stay with an elder family member in the family’s small apartment in the city. But either way, when they reached public school, they’d be socially, academically, and linguistically delayed.

“What this does is push the cost of child services down the line,” says Piros. “We teach school readiness. And, the research shows that Head Start alum are less likely to drop out and also be involved in criminal activity. Families want their kids in our program. We have 400 children on the waiting list.”

It’s hard to imagine one of the little folks running around a sunny corner classroom at University Settlement as a hardened criminal. On a recent visit, I caught a glimpse of morning “free play” time: healthy 3 and 4 year olds engaged in various activities, all in English. Some were drawing the letters in their names on thick lined paper, others pretending to read books, narrating each illustration with their own words, and a few late comers were finishing up breakfast (oatmeal and orange slices) with a classroom “grandparent”.

(Not only does each class have multiple teachers, teacher’s aides, and parent volunteers – all part of the Head Start philosophy of family involvement – there are elder community members who work 20 hours a week in the classrooms through a program run by the NYC Department for the Aging.)

At one point, a group of three girls holding hands get a little rough with their dancing and someone falls down. As the fallen pigtailed 3 year old begins to whimper and the other two look around guiltily, a teacher steps in to begin what can only be described as a teaching moment. This is really how young minds learn to interact and socialize appropriately and effectively, I find myself thinking.

But it is even more than that, say development specialists.

“Head Start is effective. As a comprehensive child development program, Head Start provides education, health, nutrition, and social services to children and their families…. and produces substantial long-term benefits. ” wrote W. Steven Barnett, PhD, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research in a paper presented in a congressional Science and Public Policy hearing in 2002.

The Head Start at 120 year old University Settlement House, began in 1967. Piros says that each year it receives $1.2 million in federal funding, which covers roughly 112 children. And the rest, $650,000 is provided by city and state money and covers 61 children. She says in New York, rent is usually one of the largest part of a pre-school’s budget, but in her school’s case, the University Settlement House owns the facilities and don’t have to worry about that.

But, just last month, the program received a huge blow to funding. In an effort to reduce its budget, the City changed a family’s income qualification from 275% over the poverty line to 200%, and tacked on a 9 year time limit to access the free pre-school. Piros says 10 spots were thus cut from her school and 10 kids were told they couldn’t come back.

“We’ve had cuts before, but never this big,” Piros said. And with federal funding set to be cut now too, things are looking grim. Piros says this must be why Nydia spoke up at the budget hearing last month.

“Nydia has been a strong supporter of Head Start for years. She is committed to low-income services and working with community-based organizations. I think she understands how it ultimately benefits everyone.”

If the opposite is true, then, reducing the size and impact of Head Start in the community would be a disadvantage for everyone, too.

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