Cutbacks force creative thinking
by Shane Dunaway
Sep 07, 2013 | 1811 views |  0 comments | 71 71 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Eastside Head Start Center teacher Melody Dickerson speaks with Christian Taylor, Karsten Nixon and Caleb Bishop. Local Head Start centers have been creative in keeping federal cuts from hurting their programs.
Eastside Head Start Center teacher Melody Dickerson speaks with Christian Taylor, Karsten Nixon and Caleb Bishop. Local Head Start centers have been creative in keeping federal cuts from hurting their programs.
slideshow
As federal cutbacks enter the seventh month, numerous agencies across the nation continue to tighten the proverbial belt for the sake for fiscal responsibility.

Local Head Start programs affected by the federal budget trimming seek to find creative solutions managing resources available while providing quality service.

Dora Jones, Cheaha Regional Head Start program director, oversees operations for Head Start programs in Talladega, Calhoun, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa and Randolph counties.

Despite a 5.27-percent loss in the region’s budget, Jones said none of the Head Start programs in her region lost any staff members, but of the estimated 1,179 slots for children cut statewide, the region lost 70 slots, or nearly 6 percent.

“We decided not to make all the cuts in one county,” Jones said. “We spread them out between the six counties. It would have been difficult to take 70 slots away from Talladega County or any of the other counties due to the potential hardships it could cause families.”

Jones insisted dispersing the cuts throughout the region enabled each Head Start program to retain its staff.

“We worked it out to where it would be the most efficient while still allowing us to provide quality services to the children and parents,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, we had to cut back on the number of days we provided services. Each year, we usually start at the beginning of August, but this year, we started our Head Start programs on Aug. 30.”

An advantage Jones noted included not having to provide transportation services in the mostly rural regions in her coverage area.

“If we had to worry about transportation, it would drastically impact our services,” Jones said. “We just have to sit down and do some creative thinking to continue having quality services for our students and parents.

In St. Clair County, Head Start director Latoya Orr cited a different set of challenges faced due to the cuts.

“We did not cut any of our funded units within the county,” Orr said. “The biggest impact we felt was in support services, most notably transportation. We had to suspend our Pell City bus route — which is our biggest route — until November and lay off some of our support personnel.”

According to Orr, St. Clair County’s Head Start program is a stand-alone program not connected to the school system or community action plan. The program serves children in municipalities throughout the county as far west as Moody and as far north as Steele.

“Transportation is a huge service we desperately need to maintain,” Orr said.

Orr lauded the parents locally who’ve embraced the changes and have conveyed a sense of patience in dealing with the recent changes.

“Our parents have been wonderful with making sure their children get here,” Orr said. “We have had 98-percent attendance since the school year began. They’ve been carpooling and doing whatever they have to do even thought it’s an inconvenience. LaShawn Green, a parent of one of our children currently attending, brings four-to-five students to school on a given day.”

Other efforts by the St. Clair County Head Start to save money include applying for and receiving a $45,000 Excellence Grant from the Alabama Office of School Readiness to help support one classroom, partnering with community supporters and welcoming local businesses to donate if willing.

Orr cautioned that further budget cuts to the program could have drastic impacts.

“If we are cut deeper, it will affect us again, and we’ll have to cut classrooms — something we’ve been trying to protect ourselves against,” Orr said. “We have 70 students currently on a waiting list and increased cuts would add more students to the waiting list, compounding the problem. The students who attend our program receive social, emotional, literacy and math skills that help enhance school readiness and prepare them to enter elementary school.”

Despite the obstacles budget cuts bring, Orr seemed determined and inspired by the efforts of others.

“Our parents have stepped in and helped tremendously,” Orr said. “Our staff has picked up the slack. We will stay true to our mission to unsure our students receive quality services.”

Contact Shane Dunaway at sdunaway@dailyhome.com