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139 Alaska kids lose Head Start access

Posted: August 25, 2013 - 12:10am

FAIRBANKS — When Head Start programs start this fall, 139 children in Alaska — 30 of those in Fairbanks — will lose access to the early education assistance.

The statewide drop is part of a larger loss of positions for 57,000 Head Start students nationwide because of the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide early childhood education and assistance for low-income families. For families to qualify, their total income must be below the poverty line — about $24,000 for a family of three in Alaska.

Last year, Head Start programs served just fewer than 4,200 children in Alaska.

Head Start was one of the hardest hit programs by the sequester, and Fairbanks was one of the hardest hit areas in the state.

Programs in the Fairbanks North Star Borough are split between two organizations: Thrivalaska and Fairbanks Native Association. Each of them, like every other Head Start program in the state, took a 5.27 percent budget cut.

For FNA and many other Head Start programs, those cuts are just now taking effect as the school year begins. FNA took one of the biggest hits to enrollment in the state.

Last year, FNA served 303 children in the Fairbanks area, according to Mary Willey, the organization’s Head Start director. When its programs pick up again in September, that number will fall to 273.

Some of those 30 lost seats were simply not filled when children aged out of the program. For others, however, FNA had to go to families and tell them their children could no longer use the service.

Lost jobs

The lost seats, while the most visible effect of the budget cuts, are only one part of the cutbacks Head Start coordinators made during the summer. Head Start programs in Alaska cut 32 staff positions, and some programs, such as Thrivalaska, cut their entire transportation budgets.

Gina Pruce, Thrivalaska’s Head Start director, said that even though her organization didn’t have to cut any slots, the transportation cuts will effectively force some kids out of the program. Many of the families in Head Start don’t have access to reliable transportation.

“There will be some children who cannot re-enroll because they cannot get here,” Pruce said.

While Fairbanks Native Association won’t feel the real weight of the cuts until September, Thrivalaska has been feeling them since its fiscal year started in the spring. Thrivalaska eliminated two staff positions and furloughed many of its remaining staff, forcing its entire administrative team to take two weeks of unpaid time off.

Across the country, some 18,000 Head Start staff were laid off or furloughed as a result of the federal budget reductions.

Each Head Start program was given a level of freedom to decide what it would cut, but each program was forced to submit those cuts to national authority for approval. Because Head Start is federally funded, programs can’t make cuts that would affect their mandated goals.

“The basic services you can’t cut because you still have to meet the standards for head start,” Pruce said. “We’re used to that, mandates without money, but you still have to provide everything you provided in the past — just with $80,000 less.”

In total, Head Start programs in Alaska lost about $1.8 million in funding.

No state support

Many states, including Alaska, provide supplemental funding to Head Start programs through a grant process. When the federal cuts hit, several states stepped in to help cover the loss to Head Start programs.

Willey — who in addition to her position at Fairbanks Native Association serves as president of the Alaska Head Start Association — said Alaska has not provided programs with any additional funding.

“The state of Alaska has not picked up any of the budget cut,” Willey said.

The money Alaska provides each year, Willey said, is not a significant part of programs’ budgets.

While there are other childcare assistance programs, those too have been hit by the federal cuts. Willey said she worries about the void that will be left in assistance programs if Head Start gets cut any more.

Kids Corp Inc., a Head Start program in Anchorage serving 18 kids, was forced to shut down entirely because of the budget cuts.

For Head Start programs that remain open, there is no foreseeable end in sight to the budget cuts, but Willey remains hopeful and a bit defiant.

“Sequestration cannot continue,” she said. “The impacts of it are just too harmful to all our children, all our staff, all the families.”

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