Parents, staff and young students gathered last Thursday in front of the Homer Head Start to advocate for the school and urge people to support it in the wake of financial uncertainty due to budget vetoes made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
About 20 people waved, held signs and talked in front of the early childhood education building on Ocean Drive on Thursday. Some took markers in hand to sign posters asking for support for the program and asking demonstrators what they thought the value of the program is to the community.
Along with 20 other early education programs in the state, the Homer Head Start is run by the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP). In the wake of line-item budget vetoes made by Dunleavy, RurAL CAP stands to lose about $2.7 million in state Head Start and PAT home visiting funding, according to a press release from RurAL CAP.
As a result, the organization is preparing to “completely” eliminate six Head Start programs across the state, including Homer’s. The others are in Anchorage, Kake, Kluti Kaah, Sterling and Tok.
The Homer Head Start program does have other sources of funding, said Terri Mach, the education coordinator for the program who has worked there for 14 years. Much of it is federal funding. However, in order to qualify for those federal funds, the Head Start program has to come up with a 20% local match. If the state funding is lost, there is no way Homer Head Start can make up the difference from other sources to get the local match, and will therefore lose the federal funding. Without that, it can’t continue to operate.
The Homer Head Start program has operated in the community for 25 years. An option for quality early childhood education would be lost for parents, should that program be lost, Mach said.
“It’s important because the majority of brain development happens during the first five years of life,” she said. “And so that development that happens is based on early experiences. So early experiences matter. That develops the pathways in the brain that develop to build on later. … This program serves children in those early years … and their families.”
Besides education for young children, Homer Head Start provides the students with healthy meals and services for parents. This includes connecting parents with other resources in town that they might need. The program is also free to enroll in.
There are other pre-school programs in the Homer area, but they aren’t free.
“And they’re aren’t enough,” Mach said. “There are not enough and they are not affordable to some people.”
Mach said it’s the parents, staff, volunteers and former students who return to Homer Head Start later in life to help out that make the program as strong as it is.
In fact, parent volunteer hours is one of the places the local funding match can come from, Mach said. Community donations also count toward the match. However, local contributions won’t make up for lost state funding if the budget veto to Head Start programming goes through, she said.
“This program is very well supported locally by our community, but the state funding provides the majority of the 20 percent (match),” Mach said. “… You can’t reach it with bake sales.”
Martha Wagele, local program supervisor, said shutting down the Homer program isn’t a done deal, but they’ve been told by RurAL CAP that they are “at risk” for closure.
“We were really shocked, because we’re one of the stellar programs,” she said.
Wagele explained that, in deciding which programs to put on that list, RurAL CAP worked to preserve the most rural programs as much as possible.
“Five of the six (programs on the list) are on the roads,” she said.
Homer Head Start currently has 20 children enrolled to start this school year and 17 more on a waiting list. Wagele said there aren’t many spots left elsewhere in town in pre-school programs.
“We have kids that are in foster care that are enrolled, kids being raised by grandparents,” Wagele said of the program. “Kids with teenage parents, families living in poverty, families with all kinds of adverse situations.”
Some of the parents in these families simply would not be able to work if they couldn’t send their child to preschool, and many aren’t able to afford one, meaning the Homer Head Start is the only option for some families.
“It’s a huge loss for the community,” Weagele said of the potential loss of the program. “Families that are at risk lose quality early childhood experience with education, nutrition, socialization, family services. We work with parents on helping get resources in the community. No other program has family service(s).”