Early learning programs hurt by federal cuts

Door to success slammed on most pre-K kids

WITHAMSVILLE, Ohio – While educators and statisticians pile on more evidence of how early childhood education leads to later academic and career success, budget cuts due to sequestration have further sliced into funding for public preschool.

Across-the-board cuts to federal programs mandated by Congress’s sequestration agreement meant Ohio funded preschool for 1,841 fewer children through the federal Head Start program this school year. Most of Ohio’s 88 counties saw their Head Start enrollment shrink:

  • Hamilton County has 249 fewer slots
  • Butler County has 64 fewer
  • Clermont County has 28 fewer
  • Warren County has 16 fewer

Combined, those four Greater Cincinnati counties lost $2.3 million in Head Start and Early Head Start funding and also cut 22 staff positions, according to Ohio Head Start Association in Dayton.

In Northern Kentucky’s Boone, Campbell, Kenton and Pendleton counties, the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission managed to serve the same number of children as last year by cutting all transportation for families wanting to fill the 440 available slots – a number that has remained flat for 15 years despite dramatic population growth.

“We could probably serve three times that number,” said Florence Tandy, executive director of the commission, which administers Head Start programs in those four Kentucky counties.

What does it matter? The domino effect of being ready or not for kindergarten has ramifications for years to come, according to a growing body of research.

• More than 86 percent of children deemed ready for kindergarten based on Ohio’s Bracken test are able to read by third grade. Among those who aren’t ready for kindergarten, just 45 percent are reading by third grade despite all the remedial programs that schools have in place to catch them up, according to United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
• Children reading at the third grade level in third grade are four times as likely to graduate high school than those who are behind, according to a 2011 study conducted by the Education Writers Association
• High school dropouts ages 16 to 24 are an astounding 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates, according to a Northeastern University study. Dropouts earn 2/3 as much money as high school graduates, are less healthy and far more likely to live in poverty.

Around the country and around Cincinnati, educators and business and political leaders hungry for a qualified workforce are working to dramatically increase the number and percentage of children attending preschool and being reached from birth onward through home visits.

Berta Velilla, director of early learning at Child Focus, Clermont County’s Head Start agency, said she sees 3-year-olds entering preschool who have never been exposed to using forks and spoons, the use of which are an important stepping stone toward being able to write.

“Some children are not articulating words and compensate at home through non-verbal communication, finding themselves at big disadvantage when they’re placed in a classroom,” she said.

She said home visits are vital to healthier and higher functioning children. “We spend 3½ hours, four days a week in preschool. Most time is spent with families, so we work to get them involved in reading, in more conversations. We take data and give it to parents.”

They have monthly meetings to review how much parents are reading to their children, enforcing positive discipline and employing other effective tools, forming development plans for each family that chart incremental fixes.

“We try to meet families where they are,” Velilla said.

At Withamsville-Tobasco Elementary School in Clermont County, Paige Wilson is a first-year preschool teacher doing everything she can to ensure her 17 students, all beneficiaries of the Head Start program, will be ready for kindergarten.

Her classroom is clean and bright, with white painted walls, tile floors and activity stations spread across the room – a bookcase here, a “sensory table” full of sand, measuring cups and toys there.

“Class is vital to learn social skills and to learn to interact with others in a language-rich environment,” she said. Children who might otherwise be bored inside a quiet home are instead interacting in a tri-lingual classroom. While nearly all of the 17 children are English speakers, several kids are two Spanish speakers, and one who speaks Hindi and English.

Wilson uses an iPad to help translate, which helps the kids who speak foreign languages and introduces the English natives to other tongues in the process.

Donna Hunter is the grandmother and guardian of Jamie and Elizabeth Pelcha, 4 and 3, two vibrant girls in Wilson’s classroom.

“It’s been great. Jamie scores really high on tests, and they

both want to be doctors,” Hunter said during a visit to the classroom with a reporter. “I need resources to help at home, and Paige helps connect me with counseling. “

Child Focus provided counseling to the girls during their transition to living with Hunter, which got them ready for school. “I had a rough time, but they just love to come here. Without this, they would have struggled. I would have been lost. “

Ellie was shy but said she likes “meeting friends” at school. Jamie busied herself at the sensory table, playing on a sand box table with measuring cups and other containers. She played a shapes game in the play kitchen and proudly showed off several geometric shapes.

A 'Financial No-Brainer'

Dramatically improving kindergarten readiness is an economic imperative, according to John Pepper, the former president and CEO of Procter & Gamble. He is an active local and national education advocate, including in his current stint as co-chair of ReadyNation CEO Task Force on Early Childhood.

“Quite apart from the ethical and moral aspects, it’s financially a no-brainer,” Pepper said in a WCPO interview.

The cost of financing home visits for children ages 0-3 is far less than remedial efforts and other consequences of getting off to a slow start, including higher incarceration rates, more frequent special education, he said.

Keys to academic success are home visitation and preschool, he said, but only reaching 25 percent of those in need are being reached.

“It borders on criminal, and it’s certainly stupid,” he said.

The nation’s lagging world ranking in education gets even worse for impoverished Americans.

“If you disaggregate those statistic into two groups, those schools with less than 10 percent  of their students qualifying for federal lunch programs – the Wyomings and Mariemonts – test above every other nation,” he said. “Those with 75 percent or more who qualify test at the lowest level. We cannot allow these children and their families to not have the chance as those other children. It’s that simple”

Hard choices have to be made to fund spots for preschool, Pepper said, including shifting existing budgets away from higher grades and finding new revenue through taxes or other sources.

“I think what we need to do is take that 25 percent (preschool funding) and get it closer to 75 or 80 percent, and we need to see what the bill is for that, and we’ll have to see where we can reallocate and what new money we need. It’s tough work,” he said.

Asked what practical steps that people can take to start fixing the problem, he said the first is to encourage everyone to learn the facts.  Second, he urged citizens to contact state and federal legislators to stress the need for prioritizing early education funding, especially for the impoverished children.

“Make sure those in need get the support,” Pepper said.

He is optimistic that people want government to shift focus to early education.

“The overwhelming majority of people understand this is critical to our nation’s future.  The fact that we’re falling behind other countries is becoming increasingly clear.”

He cited China’s publicly stated commitment to provide three years of preschool to 70 percent of its youth by 2020. India has initiated a mandatory preschool program for its massive population.

“This is something that I know will happen eventually because if we don’t do it we’re going to be in the dumps,” Pepper said. “What’s at stake is the future of this nation. I don’t believe that’s just rhetoric,” Pepper said.


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