It’s day three of Jenaveve Cardenas’ educational career and the four-year-old clings to her mother’s leg, sobbing.
Cardenas attends the Head Start program at Washington Elementary in Pomona. Her mother, Magdalena Simpson, wiped her daughter’s tears and promised she’d be back soon.
Outside the classroom, Simpson laughs: “She’s crying, but I’m just glad she got a place in the class!”
Like most Head Start providers, Pomona Unified has had to make tough choices to deal with the 5.27 percent across-the-board sequester cuts handed down by the federal government.
Across California, more than 5,000 three- and four-year-olds don’t have a seat in a Head Start preschool this year. Nationwide, according to the Obama Administration, 57,200 children will miss out.
Keesha Woods, who runs Head Start programming for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said parents are panicked.
One mother called her office and said: “I was depending on my three year old getting in, so now I’m going to have to quit my job,” Woods recalls.
Even after losing 900 slots, almost 21,000 children receive will receive free Head Start programs through the county office.
She said many providers have trimmed administrative staff to preserve as many seats as they could.
Pomona Unified did the same thing.
It reduced the supplies budget to $250 per classroom for the entire year.
“I don’t know how I will do it with such little money,” said Penny Ellis, the Early Head Start Coordinator at Pomona Unified. She says teachers and social workers won’t be able to replenish the materials when they wear out or break.
At Montvue Elementary school, as twelve preschoolers sit on the mat singing along to an alphabet song, the teacher keeps pace by flipping pages in a large alphabet book. When she gets to letter F, the page falls out of the book.
The kids laugh. Cyndie Allen, who coordinates Early Childhood programs for the district, looked on, crestfallen. This is exactly the type thing she now has no money to replace.
Then there are the administrative cuts. No more professional development, which means the district can’t bring in professors from local community colleges to teach its preschool instructional aides the classes they’re required by the Head Start to take.
The district laid off an office manager and staff that recruits families for Head Start.
The cuts to outreach will have a long-lasting impact, Allen said. Even though Head Start has been around for a generation, many low-income families still don’t know it exists – or where to find the programs.
“When you’re just working on trying to exist and keep your family alive it’s really hard to focus on all the needs of your children,” Allen said.
So many families in Pomona can’t afford preschool – about 20 percent live in poverty - that the Pomona School district has been administering Head Start services since the program began in 1965.
Pomona Unified’s recruitment staff worked to put up booths at community fairs and reached out to homeless families to sign them up.
Without that staff, Allen said it will be harder to reach the neediest families to encourage them to sign up.
Woods, of the county Office of Education, agrees .
“Community outreach to find the neediest families is a foundation of the Head Start program,” she said. “Outreach, parent involvement, and comprehensive services to children are the cornerstones of Head Start.”
Simpson said she learned about Pomona Unified’s Head Start programs at a community health fair.
Before that, she thought children started their learning in Kindergarten. Simpson, 37, has four children under six-years-old living with her. The family is crammed in a one-bedroom trailer in a mobile home park a few blocks from Washington Elementary in South Pomona, where Jenaveve just started preschool.
Simpson’s eldest child, Zeke, had to repeat Kindergarten because he was behind. Simpson is convinced that’s because he missed out on preschool. His younger sister did go and she’s doing much better.
“I saw the difference when they go to head start and when they don’t go to head start,” Simpson said. “If I wouldn’t have gone to that health fair I wouldn’t have known about it and I probably just would have started my kids at kindergarten like I did my son.”