Ellyana Benitez, left, and Briana Melgar brush their teeth after lunch. More than two months after automatic federal spending cuts, Headstart is one of several categories feeling the squeeze in Southern California, including those receiving help in unemployment, housing, and researchers receiving federal funds.
Gina Roscoe has lived in Monrovia all her life. Her four-year-old son, Jose, has attended the Options Head Start program in downtown Monrovia since last November. He’s learned a lot in those six months, according to his mom.
“He came home knowing how to spell his name out … he’s learned a lot from here, colors, shapes, he knows them all,” Roscoe said.
But due to automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration, the school is eliminating its afternoon program in the fall. Jose is among 20 kids who can try to vie for spots that may open up in the morning program, but competition for head start programs is fierce. Options, the agency that runs this and 19 other programs in the San Gabriel Valley, said hundreds of children are on its wait lists.
Roscoe said she can’t afford to pay for preschool. She is currently out of work. If she isn't able to find him a spot at a Head Start preschool, she worries he'll fall behind.
"It wouldn’t be good,” she said.
The end of this program is one of the first examples of how the automatic spending cuts know as the sequester have begun to reach local families.
Head Start programs in California receive $900 million annually to serve 110,000 Californians. Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Association, estimates 7,000 slots will be lost due to sequestration.
“This is the single biggest cut to the Head Start since the inception of the program 50 years ago,” he said. “The cost in human terms -- and in financial terms, too -- is significant."
This comes on the heels of years of cuts to state funding for subsidized early childhood education programs in California. Over the past five years, state funding has been cut by 40 percent, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Childcare.
The federal sequester cuts will hit providers at different times depending on when their contracts are due for renewal.
Situated on a main Monrovia thoroughfare, the Options Preschool is hub of activity for the twenty children that currently attend the afternoon class.
The program provided more than learning. After a song to greet each other, and a quick check in, the teacher would send children to wash their hands to get ready for lunch. On the menu during a recent visit were beans, zucchini, and corn bread. Lead teacher Lawana Nelson said it might be the only healthy and substantial meal some of the children receive all day.
The director of the Monrovia school, Erika Diaz, said many of the families who send their children to her preschool survive on a very low income.
"A lot of the parents are barely making ends meet,” she said.
Those who can't get into a subsidized preschool, she said, will be less prepared for kindergarten. That, in turn, will slow down learning for all students in local elementary schools unprepared.
Cliff Marcussen, director of the Options agency that runs the school, said he had no choice but to cut four teaching slots to account for the roughly 5% cut that was passed on to him.
“Our programs don’t have any fat, they don’t have any excess expenses,” Marcussen said.
He cut two teachers in Monrovia and another two at a center in El Monte. He hopes he can move the teachers into vacant spots to avoid layoffs. The kids' spots, he said, he can't save. This year his agency served more than 1,000 kids. Next year it'll serve 57 fewer of them.
Maracussen said he chose the Monrovia afternoon program largely because it had the smallest waiting list.
Options is one of many Head Start providers in Southern California. Some of them contract directly with the federal government, and others receive pass through grants from larger agencies.
In Los Angeles, 24 providers contract with the county Office of Education to serve 22,000 children. A five percent cut could translate into 1,100 fewer seats.
But the agency's director, Keesha Woods, declined to say how many seats will be lost in the end. She said other belt-tightening measures could reduce that number.
“Larger programs will likely go to look at the administrative and they can cut from staffing or supplies,” Woods said. “They may look at reducing field trips before reducing slots to children.”