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A Look Inside a Head Start Classroom -- And How Sequestration is Keeping Kids Out

The early education program helps prepare students for K-12 education, but more than 800 are waiting for services.

Lillian Hill’s Head Start classroom at Camelot Elementary School is bustling and filled with kids the Friday before Mother’s Day.

Hill teaches 16 kids -- a full classroom. Head Start has 89 classrooms across 62 Fairfax County elementary schools, but it's not enough to meet the demand.

The program is at capacity but a lack of funds for expansion, partly because of sequestration, means 800 children will stay on a waiting list for Head Start, leaving them less prepared than their peers to enter kindergarten and to learn.

The White House estimates that because of the sequester, 70,000 children nationally who would have been served by Head Start will not have access to the program by the end of the year.

On this day in Hill's classroom, she is reading the kids a book about all of the things mothers and fathers can do for their children.

“Mommies can read you a bedtime story,” Hill reads.

And her students are more than eager to participate.

“My mommy always does that to me!” one girl says.

“My daddy gives me a piggy back ride every day!” another girl chimes in.

“I want to read it!” a boy says after they’re finished.

Head Start is a program that offers free early education and pre-kindergarten services to children up to the age of 5, readying them for kindergarten and beyond. Fairfax County has 1,395 students enrolled in the program, including 48 children younger than 3 years old in Early Head Start.

The majority of Head Start students come from low-income families and about 10 percent of enrolled students have special needs. In Fairfax County, 1,095 students – or 76 percent of total enrollment – come from dual-language households.

But for every student who is able to benefit from the services, there’s a growing number of kids who will have to wait because of a lack of funding.

Head Start is funded through a mix of federal, state and county dollars, but the uncertainty generated by sequestration has left the program’s expansion unfunded in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. 

As of now, there are 840 children on the waiting list to enter Head Start programs. Some of them, no doubt, would have been left outside of classes, sequestration or not. But plans to expand the program to accomodate the growing numbers seeking service have exacerbated the overflow.

"There is definitely a need," said Karin Spencer, early childhood program manager for Fairfax County Public Schools.

The services kids get in Head Start are invaluable and set students up to perform in school down the road.

According to an FCPS analysis over the last six years , eighth graders who had had some form of early childhood education had an average pass rate of 91 percent in reading on their Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and an average pass rate of 90 percent in math. Students without early education had an 87 percent pass rate in reading and an 81 percent pass rate in math.

Children begin to learn to read and count, spelling their names and learning words during story time with their teacher.

“It’s important, especially for English-language learners, to build a strong vocabulary very early,” Spencer said.

Only two of the 16 children in the Camelot Head Start classroom are native English Speakers, Hill said.

Head Start curriculum aligns with a traditional K-12 program of studies by incorporating the foundations for reading and math, but also for science and other fields.

Hill’s classroom featured a butterfly habitat in which students could observe how a caterpillar evolved, and a small garden where the class was growing parsley.

The program also teaches children routines and independence. A typical class day is broken down into a set schedule, including a period during which kids work through exercises in their journals. They spell their names, they count, they draw.

“At the beginning of the year, the students were all on different levels,” Hill wrote in an email to Patch. “A couple of them were very capable when they arrived in September, while some of them needed quite a bit of help. 

“We work on trying to get them ready, or close to ready, for kindergarten. We work, not only on academic skills, but also on learning to follow routines, following directions, and working and sharing with others ... Most of them are doing very well.”

And 14 of the 16 will move onto kindergarten next year. The other two missed the age cutoff, she said.

The School Board hoped to use $3 million of the FY 2014 budget to get about 200 children off the waitlist into classrooms, but the board received less money than it hoped for from the Board of Supervisors. In a staff report this week, officials recommended cutting that funding in order to help close a $30 million gap.

Supervisors were unable to provide additional dollars for expansion "due to concerns over the potential loss of federal funds for the existing program as a result of sequestration," according to budget language.

County staff has been directed to address potential cuts to students currently enrolled and, in the event no cuts are made, how to get kids off of the waitlist.

Supervisors say they are committed to working with the Fairfax County School Board to find a solution and eliminating the waiting list by 2018.

VA Boy May 20, 2013 at 05:02 PM
FCPS's Approved Budgets over the past few years: 2012 - $2.3million 2013 - $2.4 million 2014 - $2.5 million (proposed) Do these increases look like budget cuts to you?
Java Master May 20, 2013 at 05:57 PM
The effectiveness of Head Start is still subject to debate and for good reason. Head Start (and early childhood education generally) still do not receive the hard scrutiny they deserve, instead they have become another political goodie to be handed out by politicians currying favor with someone else's money. And if the regular elementary and middle schools are doing so poorly with these same students are they move thru the system, what real good is being served by Head Start? I am being Devil's Advocate here, and I want to see Head Start ppl step up and respond to these concerns, but I do not see hear them at all...what we usually get is more polarizing, politically-charged heat, but seldom any light on the subject. Anyone?
John Mendonca May 20, 2013 at 07:21 PM
We have budget cuts in Head Start yet Fairfax County Park Authority and Reston Community Center have $25-35 million to spend on an unwanted and unneeded Recreation Center at Baron Cameron. FCPA also has millions to renovate other Recreation Centers. Where are our priorities?

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