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Sequester budget cuts hitting Kanawha Head Start programs hard

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Head Start officials in Kanawha County are scrambling to account for federal funding cuts.

The program, which puts children from low-income homes into preschool classrooms in the name of school readiness, has been slashed nationally. That's because of the sequester - the automatic spending cuts agreed to last year after a Congressional deadlock on the budget.

The White House estimates that sequester-related cuts would result in the elimination of Head Start services for about 500 children.

In Kanawha County, that means cutting about 14 students, said Karen Williams, Head Start director for the county. Instead of being funded for 530 students, Kanawha County now has room for 516.

At a meeting last week, Kanawha school board members approved a new Head Start budget for the upcoming fiscal year. It takes the funding cuts into account.  

"The one thing that the federal government requests in the sequester is that we don't reduce quality," Williams said.

"And therefore we're looking at maintaining the quality of services that we're providing to children - classrooms, certified teachers, aids. We have just been going on and trying to plan for next year taking that into account."

The cuts have been especially mind-boggling for educators in the midst of a political climate that is outspokenly in favor of Head Start and early childhood education.

In his State of the Union address in February, President Barack Obama called early childhood education a priority and called for more preschool programs across the country. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did the same in his State of the State address.

The state Legislature later passed a law that will expand West Virginia's public preschool program to provide for full-day preschools in every county.

Head Start shares the same goals as those programs - school readiness through early childhood education - but Head Start serves low-income children exclusively, the same population research shows benefits most from preschool.

"That's why it is really crazy," Williams said. "It has been a hard year."

In West Virginia, nearly a quarter of 4-year-olds are provided preschool through a Head Start program, according to figures from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Kanawha County's Head Start program has been put under further stress by a grant proposal that is still waiting for approval. It's a hefty grant - worth more than $2 million - and the fate of Kanawha County's Head Start program could depend on it.

Officials are hoping to hear back about that grant by July. Williams is confident it will be approved, but she said the uncertainty of the finances has made planning ahead difficult.

"You write your grants and you know you're hoping to hear something but right now with all the uncertainty with what's going on, a lot of times we don't get the answers as quickly as we would anticipate," she said. "It's been kind of nerve-wracking."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.

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