Fifty-three empty chairs set up in front of the Goleta Valley Community Center on Monday symbolized the 53 fewer children that will be able to attend Head Start classes in Santa Barbara County this year, the result of sequester cuts. The Community Action Commission (CAC), which administers Head Start here, also laid off nine full-time employees to cope with its sudden loss of funding. Nationwide, there will be 57,200 fewer spots for kids in the preschool program for economically disadvantaged families, including foster children and the homeless, according to the White House.
In the audience at the made-for-media event was Bianca Sunnadeniyage, 25, whose four-year-old son’s Head Start class survived. Without it, Sunnadeniyage would not be able to enroll as a full-time SBCC nursing student, as most state-funded programs are only half-day.
One of the unlucky parents was single mom Erika Ramos, who learned that her daughter’s Head Start class at Harding University Partnership School was discontinued. The CAC chose to close both 20-student classes at the elementary school because it would be easiest to find replacement services for that population. Working as a housecleaner, Ramos had to take her daughter with her on jobs until she was got into Head Start, where the girl was thriving. “She was writing her name at three and a half years old,” said Ramos. “She was socializing. She was happy to be around friends.” Since being interviewed, Ramos got a bit of good news: her daughter was offered a spot at Head Start’s Coronel Place campus.
In isolation, the sequestration cuts may not seem debilitating, but they come after years of declining state funding for early childhood education. According to data compiled by the Santa Barbara County Education Office, 1,238 spaces in child development programs have been lost since the 2007-2008 school year. In dollars, that’s about a $5.5 million hit, down to $27,579.127 from $32,949,204. Forty-two percent of the lost spaces were for infants and toddlers, while 19 percent were for preschoolers. The state Department of Education did bump up funding this year, but “programs are still reeling from [past] cuts,” said Joyce Stone of the County Education Office.
Ben Romo, the executive director of First Five Santa Barbara County, said that while more neural connections in the brain are formed from the years 0-5 than any other five-year period of a lifespan, there is no educational system for pre-kindergarteners in the U.S. If a third of children did not go to elementary school — slightly less than the amount that don’t attend preschool — it would be deemed “nearly criminal,” he said, explaining, “Head Start is the backbone of early care and education for kids who are at most risk for not being ready for kindergarten.”
Speakers on Monday included Ray Morua, a district representative for Lois Capps who was himself a Head Start child. “If it wasn’t for Head Start, I wouldn’t have been successful as a soldier, I wouldn’t have been successful as a student,” said the Army vet. Police officer Adrian Gutierrez recalled pulling on the gate because he was scared to enter the Los Ninos Head Start on Cota Street the first day his mother took him. Born in Mexico, Gutierrez said the classes played a critical role in helping him to learn English. In Santa Barbara County, 68 percent of Head Start students speak a language other than English at home.
Elsa Maganda also spoke as a last minute stand-in for her husband, a taxi driver, who got stuck in traffic. Her daughter, Barbara — who can write her name, count to 20, and recite the alphabet, she said — is about to start kindergarten at Hollister Elementary School after two years in Head Start. Maganda also praised the wraparound services offered by Head Start including health screenings and vouchers for Payless Shoes. “I don’t think they will do that at Hollister,” she said.
Head Start Health Coordinator Walker Dearth cited a Rand Corporation monograph that collected studies suggesting every dollar invested in preschool education returns at least seven because, according to the report, “participating children use less special education, repeat fewer grades of school, graduate high school at higher rates, have higher earnings, use less welfare as young adults, and have lower rates of crime and delinquency.”
Head Start will serve 1,045 children in Santa Barbara County this year.