Andrew Dys

At risk at edge of ‘fiscal cliff’: Head Start preschoolers

In Washington, joining an endless stream of the words “fiscal cliff” these days is the term “discretionary spending.” Discretionary spending is what supposedly can be taken out of the budget at the discretion of politicians.

Discretionary spending was found Tuesday at a Head Start pre-kindergarten program. Discretionary spending has a name. It is Naskyah Heath.

She is 5 and bright as the sun and knows her numbers and colors and days of the week and months in a year. She knows the state capital of South Carolina is Columbia and the state capital of Missouri is Jefferson City. She knows a book has a title page and an author and a binding. She knows she will write books when she grows up.

“I want to be a princess when I grow up, too,” Naskyah said Tuesday.

L’Oreal Jones, age 4, said: “I want to be a doctor.”

Ja’Miracle Barber, 5, said: “I want to be a doctor, too.”

Of 14 kids in the class, three wanted to be doctors. Four girls wanted to be princesses. A couple of the boys wanted to be aliens and stars of video games. The only ceiling is the ability to dream.

Rock Hill has 263 children at Head Start. In York, Chester, Lancaster and Union counties combined, 864 kids go to Head Start pre-kindergarten classes for what is described by politicians as low-income families.

If the politicians of both parties who claim to care about kids do nothing to make a budget deal, Head Start will not be able to enroll as many children. Teachers will be laid off.

Head Start programs face cuts of about 20 percent, said Walter Kellogg, executive director of Carolina Community Actions, the non-profit that administers Head Start locally.

“We are braced for the worst,” Kellogg conceded Tuesday.

But none of these 14 kids in Pat Samuel’s preschool class was braced for anything but learning Tuesday. They knew the names of the first presidents – “Washington,” “Adams” and “Jefferson” they called out.

The kids said “Obama” is the current president. Yet every politician who dawdles, who plays political chicken, affects these kids, whether a 4-year-old knows the politician’s name.

At Head Start, the kids are taught basic Spanish, math, spelling, geography, and more. There are seven classrooms of children in the building south of Heckle Boulevard.

There, the teachers and site director Ella Bowen march on, out of sight of politicians.

“We get them ready to excel in kindergarten,” said Samuel, a preschool teacher for 20 years. “Social skills, academics, structure, rules, all of it.”

On Tuesday, the kids in Samuel’s class sang learning songs and they shouted out the answers to those questions about state capitals and so much more. The kids are ages 3, 4, and 5.

Denniyah Robinson, 4, and K’Mya Sumter, 5, knew every answer to every question. Their voices were loud and proud.

Faith Banks, 4, knew answers. Malachi Russell, 4; and Milan Ligon, 3; and Brandon James, 3. Jamahni Shannon, 4; Giovanni Palomino, 4; and Daryl Thompson, 5. Zimere Smith, 3, and Zoie Crockett, 4.

Every one of those kids smiled and dreamed Tuesday.

Of the 14 kids, one or two, at least, would be cut if the fiscal cliff is reached. One of the teaching assistants – Laveshia Van Duyne or Charlene Glenn – likely would have to go. They both also drive school buses.

“You are great!” said Samuel the teacher.

The kids cheered.

None of the politicians who decide budgets, who talk about “fiscal cliffs” and whether these 14 kids are discretionary, was called great by anyone at Head Start on Tuesday. Nobody at Head Start cheered for any politician.

When all the songs made up of answers to academic questions were sung, Pat Samuel the teacher had one last instruction. It was not “discretionary.”

She told these kids, “Give yourselves a hand!”

The children clapped for each other and themselves. The teachers clapped for the kids. The kids cheered. It was loud and it was earned.