Targeted by sequestration, Head Start braces for cuts

San Juan Island
San Juan Island's Head Start students enjoy a dip in an inflatable pool, with Sarah Werling, teacher and program manager, (background), watching on.
— image credit: Contributed photo/SJI Head Start

By Steve WehrlyJournal reporter

The 14 children in San Juan Island's Head Start program don't know anything about how deficits or sequestration work.

Their parents and teachers, however, know just enough about those subjects to worry that a major part of the future lives of those 14 kids could be lost because a lot of people in Congress believe money spent on Head Start should instead be used to reduce the U.S. budget deficit.

According to figures released March 1 by Randy Dorn, Washington's superintendent of education, sequestration cuts will be effective immediately and are estimated to total about $9 million this year in Washington state.

The effect on San Juan Island cannot be determined yet, but Mary Ellen Lykins, program director for Skagit/Islands Head Start, parent agency of San Juan Island Head Start, estimates that "between 25 and 30 kids and their families would no longer receive services from Skagit/Islands Head Start."

Skagit/Island Head Start serves about 1,000 children total in Skagit, Island and San Juan counties.

Sarah Werling, lead teacher and manager of the Head Start program, refuses to believe such unfeeling and unthinking cruelty could be visited upon these most vulnerable islanders, all of whom live in families in or near poverty and many of whom struggle with disabilities, cognitive deficits or various behavior problems which threaten their future education.

Head Start has a waiting list of up to 10 children every year, and because of past budget cuts, lost four to six "slots" for participating children. Admission to the school, which is located near Friday Harbor Elementary School, is on a "point system," which includes family income levels, disability, being a foster child and homelessness.

The cost of the program amounts to about $9,300 per child per year. Werling and the state Head Start association point to studies that show post-Head Start benefits to school districts amount to as much as $10,000 per child per year in reduced special education, corrective education and behavior-related costs.

Studies cited by program critics suggest that many non-Head Start students "catch up" to Head Start students academically within a few years, but other studies indicate that not dealing with behavior, learning, family and nutrition problems at the 3-to-5 year-old level can result in educational deficits and continuing personal difficulties throughout a child's education years.

"Head Start helps kids in so many ways," Werling said.

All children receive health screenings and referrals to health care providers if necessary, although Head Start does not pay for health care.

A family service specialist visits the childrens' homes and helps parents with advice relating to their children and their children's problems. "Goal-setting for parents and children is a big part of my work with families," said 18-year veteran Marilyn Karon, who visits families in their homes every few weeks as part of her work at Head Start. Additionally, a food aide makes sure the kids get proper nutrition.

Mary Jean Anderson, a Primary Intervention Program specialist, works one-on-one with children to develop learning abilities and appropriate behaviors. Werling and Karon, working with two special education para-educators provided by the school district, provide intensive age- and ability-appropriate educational opportunities and resources.

Head Start is working, Werling said.

She says kids from Head Start meet and exceed their potential and do relatively fine in regular schools, although special needs kids will receive continued help and all kids will have some problems at every educational level, with or without Head Start.

Werling says she's used to budget cuts almost every year, but even though sequestration cuts are a real threat to the existence of Head Start, she is adamantly optimistic that the program will continue.

"We will find a way," she insists.


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