What it’s like to lose Head Start

October 10, 2013

Students count in five languages during a Head Start graduation ceremony in August in Washington, D.C. (Amanda Voisard for the Washington Post)

It’s been a turbulent 10 days for some Head Start programs.

When the federal government shut down Oct. 1, funding for a handful of the early childhood education programs ceased. At least seven were forced to close their doors, according to the nonprofit National Head Start Association. And those closures, which ranged from a day to about a week, affected some 7,000 low-income children in six states.

A surprise $10 million donation saved the day. And an additional six programs that would have closed at the end of the day Friday will remain open thanks to that funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

But one big question remains: Will the shutdown outlast the emergency funds? If it does, thousands of parents will have to figure out what to do with their kids. We talked to a few parents with kids in Head Start programs that did close, albeit temporarily, as well as some who work in those programs. Here’s what they had to say about their experience:

Jennifer Williams, Florida

The federal government shutdown made at least one little girl cry.

Jennifer Williams’s 4-year-old daughter, Ziaire, was just getting used to going to school when, with little warning, school was canceled.

“She cried,” Williams said. “She cried the entire time. So I looked around for other programs, you know, other day cares, other churches that may be doing programs that she could go to. Everywhere we went she was saying, ‘Is this my new school?’ And she cried.”

Williams works nights as an abuse counselor for a state agency that fields claims of child or elderly neglect, she says. Her recently laid-off husband has a new job as a loader that requires travel with truck drivers, so Williams had to turn to her mother and other relatives for help watching Ziaire when she couldn’t.

But if she were still living in Jackson, as she was before moving to Tallahassee, the situation would have been drastically different, Williams says.

“If this would have happened there, I would have been scarred,” she says. “Besides church members, I wouldn’t have had anyone.”

Capital Area Community Action Agency, the nonprofit that administers Ziaire’s Tallahassee-area Head Start program, reopened Tuesday after closing a week earlier.

Williams spent that week struggling to keep her daughter engaged. Some days, at Ziaire’s request, they would go to the library. On others, Williams would try to tire her daughter out.

“I would take her to the park, run her ragged until we could go home and she was sleeping. I had to find some way to make it work,” she jokes.

The Tallahassee program serves almost 400 children.

Jazmine Myers, Alabama

In Alabama, Jazmine Myers didn’t have as much difficulty sorting out what to do with her 2-year-old son when his Head Start program, administered by the Talladega Clay Randolph Child Care Corp., closed. But that was because she happens to work for the program, so its closure also meant that she was out of a job.

“We had no warning that the school was going to close down, so it really put me in a financial bind,” Myers says. The program reopened Wednesday after shutting down Oct. 1.

While it was closed, Myers says, she ran into other parents with children in the program who had questions about when it would reopen.

“I’m in the store at Walmart, they’re asking me when is the Head Start program going to open back up. And I can’t tell them. … It’s all up to the Congress,” she said.

And Myers herself had questions, too.

“It was just hard, we’d lose a lot of sleep at night wondering am I going to be able to pay my bills on the first of the month,” she says.

She considers herself fortunate for the private-sector funding, but Myers is still playing it safe. She’s saving what she can in case the shutdown lasts into November.

The Talladega Head Start program serves nearly 900 children.

Jessica Sullens, Georgia

Four-year-old Mackenzie was bummed when her Head Start program closed, her mother Jessica Sullens says. Fortunately for Mackenzie, it wasn’t closed long, though administrators were preparing for the worst.

“When we left, they let us know on Friday that it would probably be about two weeks,” she said. “As a mom, you have that instant panic.”

Sullens’ husband is retired from the military with an injury and can’t take care of his daughter all day long, Sullens says. “It was, ‘What do we do now?’ ”

She had begun planning with other parents to take turns taking work off to watch the kids, she said. The alternative? “Beg and plead with family members,” she said.

Some of the kids in the program, Sullens says, are the children of soldiers in a nearby training camp so they often don’t have relatives nearby to take the kids, she said.

The Ninth District Opportunity Inc. Head Start program serves 2,153 children.

Haley McCrary, Florida

Haley McCrary is not a Head Start parent, but she does serve them as a family advocate with the Capital Area Community Action Agency.

She works with 57 children and families that attend Murat Hills Head Start. They had been warned that the shutdown was coming, so McCrary was bombarded with questions  Sept. 30.

“Most of the parents that I got calls from were confused. They wanted me to fill them in on exactly what the situation was,” she says.

McCrary says she tried to explain the political situation as fairly as possible, while also expressing her optimism that the shutdown would be sorted out soon.

The reactions varied, but her conversation with one parent stood out. A young single mom whose only child was in the program took the news particularly hard. She works full time and had just started school, McCrary said.

“When I told her, she started crying on the phone and she was just asking why, what’s going on, I don’t understand,” McCrary said.

She tried to help the mother by referring her to other programs, but the child ended up spending the week with his grandparents an hour away, McCrary said. Another young single mother was in a similarly difficult position with her daughter.

And it wasn’t just parents who were affected by the closure. McCrary’s husband is working on getting his PhD, so the prospect of being out of work for weeks was troubling. “It scared me a little bit,” she says.

She tried to keep busy to keep her mind off of her temporary unemployment and ended up restoring and painting an old nightstand and painting her kitchen. Both are blue now.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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