Head Start cuts slots

LIHUE — Child and Family Service officials say they lost six slots in Head Start classrooms on Kauai after the Oahu-based nonprofit was forced to trim tens of thousands of dollars from its budget.

The nonprofit, which solely administers Head Start programs on Kauai, cut $58,923 from its Head Start programs on the island for this fall school year after a total of $85.4 billion in federal budget cuts — known as sequestration — took effect March 1.

The cuts, which are evenly divided between federal domestic and defense programs, were executed after Congress failed to strike a deal that would cut $1.5 trillion in spending over the next eight years.

“It’s unfortunate that Congress couldn’t reach some sort of budget compromise or deal and basically set it up for these automatic cuts to take place,” said Howard Garval, Child and Family Service Chief Executive Officer. “A lot of people are unhappy with that, but that’s the way it’s gone.”

Garval said the nonprofit worked with its Head Start Policy Council, comprised of parents of Head Start students along with Child and Family Service program staff on Kauai, to identify creative ways to minimize impacts.

The result, he said, was a reduction in enrollment from 156 to 150 Head Start income eligible slots across eight Head Start classrooms on Kauai for this school year. Those six slots, he said, were turned into private pay enrollment slots, meaning they can be filled if parents want to pay for them.

Child and Family Service officials are also planning to reduce support staff hours but will limit those reductions to non-school hours in the summer months, Garval said.

“Child and Family Service has taken a proactive approach to sequestration cuts,”  Garval said in an e-mail. “Our priority was to seek to place a preference on keeping as many slots open for our keiki and to maintain staffing levels during school hours and during the school year.”

The nationwide Head Start program provides services to income-qualifying families and offers early childhood education, health and nutrition services, and family services to prepare children for school readiness.

To be eligible for Head Start, students must come from families who meet or exceed federal poverty income guidelines, which begins at $17,850 for a two-person household or $22,470 for a three-person family in Hawaii, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Child and Family Service, according to its website, has more than 30 programs across Hawaii, with more than 400 employees and “touching more than 40,000 lives every year.”

Jacce Mikulanec, the policy and community partnerships director at Good Beginnings Alliance on Oahu, said the cuts are especially painful because they are happening at a time when early education is becoming even more important.

About 16,000 children, or 48 percent of all preschool age children in Hawaii, did not attend preschool between 2009 and 2011, according to an annual KIDS COUNT survey released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in July.

“As our world shrinks and Hawaii has to compete on a global scale, making sure kids are ready to succeed and have the tools to do so are even more important,” Mikulanec said. “This is critical for us right now.”

But some progress, he said, has been made in recent years to improve early education access in Hawaii.

During their last legislative session, state lawmakers approved a measure that would provide $6.1 million during the 2015 fiscal year to expand Preschool Open Doors, an existing child care program.

That money would serve about 900 4-year-old children from low-income families affected by the state Department of Education’s elimination of junior kindergarten services beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.    

The program, according to the PATCH website, provides preschool tuition subsidies for eligible families whose monthly gross income does not exceed 85 percent of the state median income, beginning at $3,179 for a two-person family or $3,927 for a three-person family.

The challenge, however, is determining what may happen over the next few years and that, Garval said, is difficult to determine at this time.

In past years, strong advocacy efforts from Congressional delegates, organization officials, department heads and local lawmakers helped to stave off potential cuts from Head Start programs.

But that wasn’t the case this year.

“Now that the state of Hawaii situation has improved and we’re seeing less cuts from state government contracts, I think now the concern is at the federal level and that’s the uncertainty now at Child and Family Service — what’s going to happen next,” said Garval.  “I think we all have a stake in attempting to advocate as much as we can to prevent further cuts to federal programs like Head Start.”

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