Head Start programs in the Sacramento region began the school year with fewer preschoolers after federal leaders imposed across-the-board budget cuts in January.
Besides providing preschool education and child care, Head Start serves as a one-stop shop offering health screenings, meals, nutrition advice and access to social services. Advocates say the program is essential to giving impoverished children a chance to succeed once they start kindergarten.
In Sacramento County, Head Start providers cut 171 seats, or 2.7 percent of the nearly 6,200 slots that were available last year, according to the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, which administers the county’s program.
Federal officials say California lost $50 million and 5,600 spaces for Head Start preschoolers, about 5 percent of the state’s enrollment.
“This is the largest cut since Head Start was founded,’’ said Kathy Davidson, director of the E Center, a Marysville-based nonprofit that administers Head Start programs in nine rural Northern California counties. ‘‘It’s devastating families.’’
In California, early childhood educators often coordinate Head Start offerings with a separately funded state preschool program also directed at low-income children. During the recession, the state cut state preschool funding by $120 million annually, or 25 percent, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
With state finances on the mend, California leaders increased preschool funding this year by $25 million, potentially saving some Head Start families from losing education seats altogether. It remains unclear how much the state infusion will offset the Head Start cut.
But local officials can attest that state and federal cuts have forced them to shut classrooms despite high demand.
The E Center served 1,800 children two years ago. It now serves 1,500 and maintains an active waiting list. The program closed an entire site in the rural community of Bangor – population 646 – that served 12 students in Butte County.
“We’ve had to continuously cut from our programs in order to keep our doors open at all,” Davidson said.
In Sacramento County, the cuts have meant a shorter school year, staff layoffs and work reductions, said Terri Carpenter, spokeswoman for SETA.
Head Start teacher Dometila Casillas at Washington Elementary is making do with less classroom help these days, although the class maintains the required 8-1 ratio of students to teachers.
Shawn Hopkins, almost 3 years old, had been in the class only a week. He sat contentedly on a recent Thursday morning painting circles on construction paper. In another corner, a group of girls pieced together puzzles, while a boy and girl sat nearby and painted their initials on construction paper.
If the children weren’t there, they would probably be in a family day-care setting with a relative, said Dr. Wanda Roundtree, Sacramento City Unified’s director of child development and preschool programs. Spending their days without a trained teacher isn’t ideal for children who need to learn language and social skills, hand-eye coordination and motor development, she said.
Sacramento City Unified serves 1,250 children in its Head Start Program for 3- and 4-year-olds, and 147 children in its Early Head Start Program for 0- to 3-year-olds. It has partial-day programs as well as full-day programs for working parents.
The district has lost $500,000 of its $10 million in funding for the 2013-14 school year because of federal cuts, Roundtree said. Sacramento City Unified has left management and staff positions vacant and reduced service agreements to dietitians, nutritionists and education consultants, among others, in order to make up for the funding loss.
‘‘Teachers scrounge more. They do what they need to do,’’ said Sally Evey, a resource teacher in Sacramento City Unified’s child development department.
But the district hasn’t avoided cutting classrooms altogether, closing two Early Head Start classrooms for children ages 0 to 3. The programs are expensive to operate because they require one teacher for every four students and can’t rely on state dollars like programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.
One of the closed classrooms offered child care for teenage mothers attending American Legion High School.
“We worked hard to ensure that if there were returning families, they were directed to other programs,” Roundtree said.
Twin Rivers Unified’s preschool program – 211 preschool spots funded by Head Start and 61 funded by the state – has lost two classrooms over the last four years because of state cuts, said Sara Haycox, director of early childhood education for the district.
C.G. Norse has two jobs, but it’s still not enough to pay for both her child’s education and housing. She said her family would have had to live with her mother if her son had never secured a spot in Head Start before starting elementary school.
“Paying rent and paying for child care and now for school uniforms and all that stuff is just too much,” said Norse, a single mother. “Trying to put food on the table is just too much.”
Norse believes Head Start helped prepare her son, Nivadan, who she once believed had a learning disability but is now thriving in the first grade.
The Head Start program has its critics. Republicans have argued that it costs too much and has not been effective, pointing to a 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study that showed positive gains made by Head Start students “are largely absent by first grade for the program population as a whole.”
But Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Childhood Education Research at Rutgers University, said research on the program conducted every few years shows Head Start is improving steadily.
The federal Head Start program is of higher quality “than the rest of the programs that kids were in,” Barnett said. “If you look at the state-run programs, they are all over the place. Some are horrible.”
Barnett is more concerned about maintaining Head Start program quality than keeping seats. He is worried that funding cuts will mean less evaluation of the program and fewer pay increases to keep good teachers.
Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090.