Lacking funds, several Head Start programs lay off employees

| Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009

Nathanael Pomiabo saw firsthand how Head Start helped his son, Daelan.

"I see the difference in him," said Pomiabo, 31, of Hunker. "It's all changed how much he's learned and how much he wants to learn."

So Pomiabo didn't hesitate to register his daughter, Kierra, 3, for her first year in Head Start and to send Daelan, 4, back to the classroom in Ruffsdale.

But possible state budget cuts are impacting Head Start, a federally-funded educational program for low-income children ages 3 to 5. The state of Pennsylvania offers supplemental funds to open up more classrooms for children in need.

With the budget in question, funds aren't being disbursed to Head Start programs, forcing the closure of some classrooms in Westmoreland, Fayette and Indiana counties.

Pomiabo's children are lucky. They will get to go to Head Start, but for only four hours a day instead of six, he said.

"My son, he loved going all day like that," Pomiabo said. "He learned a lot last year from it. I think that's what they need ... My little one, he knows it's not going to be as long. He's upset."

Five of Westmoreland County's 31 Head Start classrooms will not be able to begin Sept. 8, because of the budget impasse.

The closed classrooms are in Monessen, Jeannette, Ruffsdale and at Grandview Elementary School in Derry Area School District and Baggaley Elementary in the Greater Latrobe School District. Seven employees were laid off because of the closures.

"We've placed as many of the kids as we could in other classrooms," said Karen Brinker, director of children's services for Westmoreland Community Action. "There's 90 kids that aren't getting any service. ... Families are going unserved. If we don't get state funding more children will be starting the program a year behind when they go to school next year."

If the state does not come to a consensus on the budget soon, there could be more of an impact on the program.

"We could be laying more people off," Brinker said. "We may have to cut hours for people. We may have additional layoffs if it's not resolved soon. It impacts more than people realize. The hardest part is not knowing what's going on. We could get cut out totally. We have no way of knowing."

Brinker said there will be a ripple effect with the shutting down of the classrooms. "Other businesses are going to feel the impact," she said. "Buses aren't running, food is not being purchased, rent (is) not being paid."

Head Start of Fayette County was forced to cut three state-funded classrooms, affecting 55 children, said director Sandra Hall.

The agency operates the state's Pre-K Counts program, a separate educational outreach. Those classes are being delayed, impacting 143 children.

"Some of the parents are trying to ride it out and wait until the budget is agreed upon," she said. "Some are searching for child care elsewhere and for other preschool programs."

Hall had to lay off 20 staff members. Some have landed jobs elsewhere, meaning that when the budget is figured out, Hall may have to hire and train new teachers.

"We can't tell them how long this is going to last," she said. "It could be next week or it could be next year."

The 534 children receiving Head Start with federal dollars are not affected. But Hall worries for those that are being shut out.

"You can't ever go back and recoup that time. It's lost. It is crucial," Hall said. "Kindergarten isn't play time anymore, so the schools are expecting the children to come in ready to learn."

Indiana County Head Start is missing out on state funding for 27 children because of the budget impasse. And 10 positions for younger children in Early Head Start could not be filled for lack of state money.

One employee was laid off, said Reed Booth-Fairman, executive director.

"I've been in contact with our local legislators, and no one seems to have an idea when there's going to be some sort of resolution," Booth-Fairman said. "None of us ever thought it would go as long as it has."

Staff writer Paul Paterra contributed to this story.

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