School Matters: 7,000 Head Start spots at risk

02.12.2010 | New America Media | Catherine Atkin

Catherine Atkin is president of Preschool California, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality preschool for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most.

When 3-year-old Aaliah Sandoval began preschool at Good Beginnings Head Start in Los Angeles, she was very shy and did not talk much, even to her mother. But Aaliah quickly made friends, and now she can count up to 10, sings her ABCs every night before bed and understands the daily routine at school – all skills that prepare her to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

Aaliah is one of 7,000 California children who attended Head Start and Early Head Start programs thanks to American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. But even with the new federal stimulus funds, many of our lowest-income children are still waiting – over 70 percent of eligible kids still do not have access to the programs.

The recession has been especially tough on low-income families, many of them families of color. They may be squeezed further by proposed state budget cuts to CalWORKS child care and Proposition 10, which funds First 5 California’s education, health services and other critical programs for young children.

That’s why President Obama’s recent fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, which included significant investments in early learning programs, is such good news. Building upon his earlier commitment to a comprehensive plan for children from birth to age 5, the president proposed a $989 million increase to the Head Start and Early Head Start budget to maintain stimulus funding levels, allowing us to continue serving the 7,000 children in California who started the programs last year. The proposal also included a $1.6 billion increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant and support for pending legislation that would provide $8.9 billion over 10 years for an Early Learning Challenge Fund.

We have already seen these investments being put to good use in local communities. As with Aaliah, stimulus funds made it possible for 4-year-old Jesus Florez to attend Head Start in South El Monte, where he has learned to sing songs, and play games that teach him alphabet letters, an important skill that will help him learn to read.

At a time when low-income families are being hardest hit by California’s budget woes, Head Start is a critical resource in our communities, serving the most disadvantaged – eligible families of four who have an income of $22,050 or less.

In addition to creating spaces for more children in Head Start and Early Head Start, stimulus funds have also created jobs for teachers and staff throughout California. The Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment (PACE), for example, runs Good Beginnings Head Start, where Aaliah goes to school. It hired 10 new employees and retained 13 teachers by raising their salaries to be competitive with other local preschools. PACE also used stimulus funding to provide cost of living increases to more than 270 staff and teachers, many of them people of color.

In Merced, even more jobs were created. The Merced County Office of Education received $2.5 million for its Early Head Start program, allowing it to hire more than 60 new teachers and staff throughout the county.

Looking at stories like these, it is clear that Head Start is making a difference in our local communities, and a recent study of California Head Start confirms this. Children who participated in California Head Start programs were better prepared to start school and were more advanced in every level of development, including social skills, math, language and literacy, learning and cognitive and motor skills, according to the report.

The stimulus funds went a long way in increasing access to more children and creating new jobs, but they also helped improve the quality of early learning programs. Many schools across the state used the funds to renovate classrooms, and purchase playground equipment, toys, books, games and many other tools that help young children learn and grow.

President Obama’s budget proposal is a critical first step for our young learners, and we have already seen communities putting early learning stimulus funds to good use. On behalf of children like Aaliah and Jose, we must call upon our representatives to support the president’s budget proposals when they reach Congress. Together, we can ensure that our children get the head start they need to succeed in school and in life.

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