Head Start reopens two days after government shutdown closed centers

Herald columnistOctober 9, 2013 

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The working mother with three kids in Head Start pre-kindergarten had a simple question Wednesday as classes resumed after two days lost to the government shutdown:

“Why?” Marquettia Turner asked of the politicians responsible for the government shutdown.

“Why take away from the children who want to learn, who have cried when there was no school Monday and Tuesday? Why hurt the kids who will be the next generation to make this country great?”

There were no answers Wednesday. The federal shutdown hit day 10, and no politicians were anywhere near eight area Head Start centers that reopened Wednesday after being closed for two days.

The students and teachers were back, thanks to $10 million donated by Texas billionaires to Head Start programs in seven states affected by the shutdown. Area centers alone received more than a half-million dollars to stay open through October.

Parents and extended families have been upset over the inability of government officials to work out a solution. It took the private gift to keep more than 7,100 students nationwide in pre-kindergarten classes – including 864 children locally in York, Chester, Lancaster and Union counties.

Ironically, South Carolina has declared Oct. 24 as Head Start Awareness Day in the state.

State politicians are not responsible for the shutdown. It is a federal mess. But Rock Hill families of Head Start kids are already well aware of Head Start and the effects of the federal shutdown. No proclamation has been made by anybody sticking up for these kids.

“I am so thankful that the donation came in,” said parent Latoria Strong, who had to ask family to take time off from work to watch her son Monday and Tuesday while she was at work. “But they need to come up with an agreement. It is the children who are caught in the middle.

“Our kids depend on Head Start to learn to become the leaders of tomorrow.”

All eight area centers in York, Chester, Lancaster and Union counties reopened Wednesday.

Local centers in the four counties were the only programs affected in South Carolina by the shutdown, said Walter Kellogg, executive director of Carolinas Community Actions, the non-profit that administers Head Start locally.

Money was only sent to states where state governments have not filled the gap for Head Start during the shutdown, he said.

Head Start pays about $555,000 per month for staff, buildings, transportation, meals, services for disabled children and other costs. The donated money funneled through the national Head Start Association will keep Head Start open locally through October.

But if the shutdown lasts past October, Head Start centers could again be broke and have to close. The children and families would lose the program again.

“We would have to figure out, again, how to make sure these children are not harmed by a shutdown that the children, and their hard-working parents, did not cause,” said Brother David Boone, chairman of the Carolina Community Actions board of directors. “The donation saved these children this week.”

Boone was asked how many local, state or federal politicians have asked him about Head Start since the shutdown canceled classes.

“None,” he said. “Not one.”

More than 100 staffers were furloughed when federal money ran out Friday after the government shut down earlier that week.

“I even called Mr. Boehner’s office myself to make sure the politicians know what we do here and how this affects children,” said Head Start counselor Della Barrett, referring to House Speaker John Boehner. “This is not day care. This is school.

“Many of these children are tested when entering kindergarten to make sure they have learned and reached certain goals. We are accountable.”

Mary Jo Austin said when picking up her great-grandchild Wednesday that she is considering organizing protests to let politicians know the effects of the shutdown on Head Start children.

“This would never have happened if the affected children were from families of those politicians,” Austin said.

All Head Start families must meet federal income guidelines to qualify.

In the class taught by Latisha Glasper and Kenyatta Wherry-Hughes Wednesday, the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds showed the teachers the extra homework done during the two days off, then went over lessons that included shapes, numbers, letters, days of the week, months of the year and more.

“Our job is to make sure every child here is ready to excel when starting kindergarten,” Glasper said. “We teach here. The students learn here. This is a classroom. We work hard here every day, and the shutdown took that away from these children. We sent folders home with work last week knowing the shutdown was coming.

“We want these kids to achieve, and shutting down their classes is not the way to do it.”

Attendance was lower than normal Wednesday, the first day back from the shutdown, as some parents already of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds paid for someone else to watch their children after the closure was announced last week, said Kim Gray, site director the Rock Hill Head Start, the largest of the area centers with almost 300 students.

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, who represents York, Chester and Lancaster counties in Congress, could not be reached for comment Wednesday on the effects of the shutdown on Head Start.

The Board of Directors for area Head Start has asked students and teachers to prepare cards of thanks for the Arnold Foundation of Texas, the charitable group that donated the $10 million.

“It is wonderful that the donor gave this money, but it never should have gotten this far,” said Janie Crosby, aunt of a child who picked up her nephew because his mother was at work. “These children need to be in school so that they are ready for kindergarten. These politicians, let them give up their pay, close their schools.

“Let them sacrifice the future of their children – because that is exactly what they are doing with ours.”

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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