Four-year-old Jacob is the youngest of four children in the Erxleben family, who reside in a rural community near Cedar Springs in Kent County.
Jacob, who had been in Head Start for two years, was looking forward to preschool, but cuts from the federal sequestration means he will not be able to attend Head Start this fall – as his siblings did before him – since the funding cuts forced North Kent Head Start in Cedar Springs to terminate its Head Start preschool program.
Other Kent County Head Start programs that also face closures include the Sparta, Rockford and Lowell programs, affecting around 149 children. Statewide, an estimated 2,200 preschool-aged Michigan children will also be affected.
Teresa and her husband, David, understand the importance of early childhood education and know from experience the benefits that Head Start imparts on low-income families and their children. David works at a box-making factory where he operates a corrugator machine that makes cardboard used for box assembly, while Teresa stays home with the kids.
Their older children, Kathy, David and Ashly, who were able to attend Head Start, entered kindergarten a step ahead of other children in their classrooms. Through the zoo-phonics classes offered at Head Start, for example, they learned to recognize sounds and letters earlier than other children, which later facilitated their ability to read and write more quickly and proficiently.
Head Start classes also gave the Erxleben children an opportunity to socialize with others their age. This is particularly important for children living in rural areas, who may be miles away from the nearest playground. Socialization skills are a part of the Head Start curriculum that helps children learn coping skills, such as how to share and how to deal with other children who may be in the process of learning to share.
“When another child takes a toy away from my child, coping skills taught in Head Start helps my child say ‘I don’t like that,’ or ‘You can play with it when I’m done,’” says Teresa.
These skills help prevent fights and disruptive behavior that may impede a child’s academic success.
Because Head Start is a comprehensive program designed to not only prepare children for kindergarten, but to also foster a safe and secure family environment for young children, the loss of this program to families like the Erxlebens can be very damaging.
“Head Start is about the whole family,” Teresa says. “When my husband was injured last year and could not work while he recovered, a Head Start social worker helped us find a food pantry near our home to put food on the table.”
Though it may not be obvious to most, food security is an important component of early childhood education, as it eliminates two factors that can hinder a child’s academic success: hunger and the stress that goes along with it.
Now that the North Kent Head Start school is closing, children in families like the Erxlebens will face two choices: find another preschool program, (which would likely be too far away and too expensive for many low-income rural families); or not send their kids to preschool at all.
The moms of some of Jacob’s young friends are already considering applying for pre-K spots at public schools. But their efforts may not be successful if demand exceeds availability, and if funds are not there to help these low-income families afford quality pre-K outside of Head Start.
Teresa was upset by the news that Congress fast-tracked a bill that gives the Federal Aviation Administration flexibility to deal with sequestration, effectively stopping the furlough of air traffic controllers and avoiding sequester-related flight delays, while Head Start is still on the chopping block.
“If you’re going to help one, you should help all,’’ she said.
The bill, Reducing Flight Delays Act, was passed by an overwhelming majority in both chambers of Congress: 361-41 in the House, and unanimously in the Senate. Shortly thereafter, President Obama signed the bill into law.
While President Obama highlighted the importance of early childhood education in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget by proposing the creation of the “Preschool for All” initiative, Congress has not shown a similar interest in prioritizing young children. Neither the Senate nor the House have proposed – much less passed – a sequester relief bill to reinstate full funding for Head Start, the preschool program that helps low-income children get ready for kindergarten.
For Teresa, Congress’ lack of urgency in resolving the sequester, in a way that does not continue to hurt families, says volumes about misplaced priorities.
The sequester will stay with us until 2021 – unless our elected representatives in Congress leave partisan fights aside and come together, in good faith, to find a balanced solution to the indiscriminate cuts that are already hurting families in Kent County, Michigan, as well as across the nation.
“If you’re going to help one, you should help all,” should be Congress’ guiding principle during those negotiations.
– Yannet Lathrop