When local Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms start to fill again next month, the programs will be a bit different, but probably not in an obvious way.
There will still be plenty of kids — more than 700 throughout Marion County, from babies to toddlers to preschoolers.
But the organizations that serve them will be restructured.
It's possible that some vacant staff positions won't be filled.
It's certain that administrators will seek more financial donations from the community, arrange more volunteer help, and secure more in-kind services from professionals like doctors and dentists.
Such is the new reality for Early Head Start and Head Start. As the names suggest, these programs — federal in nature, but delivered at the local level — aim to get kids ready for a lifetime of learning.
This isn't warehousing of kids; it's deliberate — strategic teaching, building of skills and attending to needs related to a child's ability to learn.
In fact, organizers say the preparation for the learning process begins, in some ways, from the very earliest days. That's why the client base is considered families, not just kids.
The revamp of Early Head Start and Head Start is a response to federal sequester cuts. In the six-county area that includes Marion, the programs lost 5.27 percent of their federal funding — $716,329, to be exact — for the fiscal year that started on July 1.
Cutting that money is tough enough. It became even tougher last week.
In the middle of a training session, local officials received an email notification that their plan of action for the fiscal year — which is already underway — required further review from the feds.
The initial plan did not include any reduction in services or any cutting of slots for clients. Local officials hoped to absorb the budget cut by leaving vacant positions vacant and re-allocating some line items.
Will they be able to say the same after this latest, unexpected review? Time will tell.
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In the first three months of this year, sequester talk was rampant. In the end, Congress and the White House couldn't agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit, and $85 billion in automatic budget cuts kicked in on March 1.
At first, news stories about the sequester's effects were abundant. Air travelers complained about Federal Aviation Administration cuts, including furloughs for air traffic controllers that led to flight delays. That eventually was resolved.
On the local front, Marion Senior Services learned in May that it had lost $78,000 in federal funding, including $50,000 for its congregate dining program for seniors. The result: For two days each month the noon meal is not served.
The community, with a huge assist from Marion Oaks resident Mildred Musho, has helped raise more than $25,000 to help fill the gap. Without that money, the meals would have been stopped three or four days each month.
Separately, the federal Public Defender's Office doesn't have money to hire a second, much-needed lawyer for its Ocala office, and employees are forced to take 15 furlough days.
The national sequester narrative shifted in late June when the Washington Post published a story under this headline: “They said the sequester would be scary. Mostly, they were wrong.”
The paper checked 48 dire predictions that the Obama administration made about the sequester. It found 11 predictions that had come true and 24 that had not; it was too soon to tell for the other 13.
“The dog barked, but it didn't bite,” the Concord Coalition's Robert L. Bixby told the Post. The coalition describes itself as a non-partisan, grassroots organization advocating generationally responsible fiscal policy.
The Post made its point: The sky did not fall. Still, in response to the paper's reporting, some people have been speaking up to say that, to use Bixby's metaphor, the dog certainly has been biting.
On July 2 the National Employment Law Project reminded people that, because of the sequester, the average weekly payment for the long-term unemployed had dipped from $289 to $246. This money comes from the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which kicks in after state unemployment benefits are exhausted.
The Christian Science Monitor noted that “hundreds of thousands of government workers have either started furloughs or will by mid-July.”
It also said organizations that hold government contracts will be examining hiring plans in light of the sequester.
Just last week, Gov. Rick Scott noted that hurricane season is a bad time for 1,000 Florida National Guard employees to be forced into a sequester-inspired furlough. He asked the president to exempt military technicians.
And then there's Head Start. By the Post's accounting, the program fell in the “too soon to tell” column.
But it's not too soon for Yasmina Vinci.
“Congress does serious harm by considering options that balance today's ledger by trading away the futures of poor children,” wrote Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, in a blistering letter to the Post.
Vinci detailed service cutbacks and job cuts happening throughout the nation. She didn't mention Childhood Development Services by name, but she could have.
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This nonprofit group, headquartered inside a former grocery store at Northeast 25th Avenue and Northeast 14th Street in Ocala, is the “grantee” that operates Head Start and Early Head Start in Marion, Alachua, Citrus, Dixie, Gilchrist and Levy counties.
The two programs serve 1,348 children total, of whom 728 are in Marion County, according to Brandi Cooney, the agency's director of public relations and business development.
Early Head Start serves children from before birth to just short of age 3. Head Start picks up from there, serving kids until age 5.
Curt Bromund, the chief executive officer for CDS, has experience in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.
“At nonprofits,” he said, “you tend to have less control” of funding sources.
That certainly is the case these days, as his office awaits word on that unexpected plan review.
Head Start and Early Head Start need to fully comply with performance standards. That's a challenge in the best of times, and funding cutbacks and uncertainty make it even tougher.
People can talk all they want about the sequester cuts not hitting as hard as predicted. On the front lines, the view is different.
“At some point, there's a breaking point,” Bromund said. He fears it all will have a negative effect “on the quality of services we are providing.”
He also worries about staff. CDS has built a corporate culture and has many employees with 30-plus years of experience. They are the ones who build trust with client families.
How will all that be affected by the cuts?
“That's the kind of thing that keeps me up at night,” Bromund said.
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Early Head Start and Head Start don't just work with kids; they also work with the kids' families.
Each participating family sets goals at the beginning of the year. Those plans could concern transportation or economic self-sufficiency or a host of other issues.
Most of the families are low-income and some are homeless. Services are free.
It isn't day care. Families are encouraged to volunteer. Head Start teachers work with the kids, even from the earliest ages, on the following areas:
Language and literacy.
Cognition and general knowledge.
Physical development and health.
Social and emotional development.
Approaches to learning.
Does it work? Late last year, the federal Department of Health and Human Services released the results of a comprehensive Head Start Impact Study. It found that although children achieve significant gains through Head Start, those benefits tend to flatten out by the end of third grade.
“Over the decades, this Great Society relic has failed to improve academic outcomes for the children it was designed to help,” is how the Heritage Foundation's Lindsey Burke and David B. Muhlhausen summarized the report's findings. Heritage is a conservative think tank.
In that light, a modest sequester cut might not sting so badly. Then again, the programs are still around and serving people. If they are to have a chance of success, all the cutting can hurt.
“At some point,” Bromund said, “it has to.”