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Sequester hits local Head Start

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Flagstaff mom Marie Haynie spent months teaching her daughter Faith colors and numbers, but the lessons didn't seem to stick.

But after just two weeks in the Head Start program, Faith had all of that down.

Faith will enter Killip Elementary School in July well ahead of expectations for her age.

"She's already reading. She does addition problems. She asks how words are spelled," Haynie said.

And Faith can count to 250.

The Head Start programs that made the difference for two of Haynie's kids are being cut as a result of federal budget cuts.

Flagstaff's Head Start program has reluctantly closed spots for 21 kids here and 88 across four northern Arizona counties as 17 teachers and staff members lost their jobs amid a funding reduction of nearly $800,000.

The cuts, which took effect May 20, are part of federal budget cuts nationwide, and will mostly mean fewer openings in the coming academic year.

"We didn't like having to do this at all, but we didn't have any choice," said Haynie, her voice breaking.

The mother of four also chairs the local board governing Head Start, and has a son whose speech delay was largely resolved by Head Start programs.

These cuts date back to the so-called "sequestration" -- a 2.3 percent federal budget cut amounting to about $85 billion -- that came into play in March as a predetermined penalty after Congress failed to reach consensus on a budget.

Head Start in northern Arizona had to cut $793,839 between its preschool program and a program offered to pregnant women and toddlers, or nearly 5.3 percent of its budget, said Jesse Rodriguez, Head Start director.

The school preparation programs are free to families and serve children with disabilities, and those living at or below the poverty level ($19,530 for a family of three).

The governing board faced difficult choices in April, such as whether to shorten the school year for all kids, cut out the only preschool option in some small communities like St. John's and Winslow, or close classrooms in more populated areas.

The board ultimately decided that it needed to keep preschools in Fredonia and other small communities.

It also shortened the school year by five days.

"We tried our best to meet the sequestration cuts without impacting children," Rodriguez said.

The changes mean a couple of fewer groups locally, with 11 kids cut from a home-visitation program based out of downtown's Flagstaff Federated Community Church, and 10 cut from a Sunnyside preschool program.

The changes also mean Head Start will offer less bus service to get kids to Head Start, and that 17 staff members and teachers across the region will lose their jobs (two in Flagstaff), though the agency hopes to shift current teachers to vacant spots, Rodriguez said.

Head Start offers physical, nutritional and dental screenings and in-home instruction to parents.

The Northern Arizona Council of Governments had 1,621 preschoolers and 193 infants and toddlers enrolled in Head Start in Apache, Coconino, Navajo and Yavapai counties as of this spring.

The Flagstaff program has a waiting list.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at ccole@azdailysun.com or 913-8607.

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