By Henri Gendreau
The halls of the Gambier Community Center were filled with the giddy sounds of children yesterday morning, as they made their way to the first day of Head Start classes.
Or, at least, they would have been. The Gambier Head Start program has been eliminated due to sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that kicked in last spring when Congress failed to agree on a deficit reduction plan.
The federal program, which provides low-income families and their preschool-aged children with comprehensive educational services, previously served 18 students in Gambier. With 10 children moving up to kindergarten, eight students will now have to attend classes in Mount Vernon or Danville, according to Knox County Head Start Executive Director Peg Tazewell.
“No child lost services in the sequestration, which is kind of unusual,” Tazewell said. Across the country, 57,000 children will now be without Head Start or Early Head Start programming because of the budget cuts, the Office of Head Start projects.
“This year, we were able to absorb the children and the families into other centers. If there’s another cut we won’t be able to do that,” Tazewell said. “And because we cut every possible place we could this year, in order to absorb the children, the cut will hit us almost doubly hard if it happens again.”
“Programs like Head Start are essential for helping kids who are not in family environments or economic environments where they’re being prepared for kindergarten,” said Associate Professor of Psychology Dana Krieg, who teaches Psychology in Context, a class in which students volunteer at a Head Start center in the area.
“It’s been more of a logistical issue trying to figure out how we can get funding to get students to centers that are not in walking distance. We have always had students go to that center because it is conveniently located, but there are many other centers that can use a helping hand,” Krieg said.
“I am disheartened to see cuts to an already underfunded national program,” said Ben Kress ’14 in an email. He volunteered at the Danville Center last year, describing the Knox County Head Start program as “well organized and staffed by truly amazing individuals.”
“I have personally seen these teachers, over the course of a school year, change the lives of these children for the better. These centers are a necessity,” he wrote.
Tazewell said Knox County Head Start had to cut $125,111 of its $2.37 million budget, resulting in the termination of three employees countywide and the elimination of door-to-door bus services, which puts a burden on children whose parents have spotty access to a vehicle or no bus stop close by.
“It is very shortsighted to make a cut like that,” Tazewell said. “I’m appalled. I’m appalled at our Congress.”
The single Head Start classroom at the Gambier Community Center, which provides a half-day program for preschool-aged children, is continuing to be rented out by Head Start for parent and teacher training.
But possible state funding to expand preschool slots would allow the center to once again serve children. “It would be our hope that we would be able to reopen it at some point,” Tazewell said.
At the nearby Gambier Child Care Center, which mostly caters to children of professors, the children funded through Head Start and Early Head Start will not be affected by the cuts.
Still, Tazewell and other administrators are gearing up for another, potentially more harmful, round of cuts.
“There’s another potential sequestration that could happen in October if they don’t get their act together in Washington,” Tazewell said. “And it would be devastating.” The future of Gambier Head Start is largely contingent on the results of impending budget cuts, the outcome of which Tazewell says she’s through guessing.
“I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years and I’ve stopped attempting to predict politics,” she said. “It’s a crapshoot.”