Head Start is an early childhood education and wellness program serving children from low-income families and other disadvantaged backgrounds. The program is aimed at giving those children in the most vulnerable and critical time of their lives a better chance of succeeding in higher education and going to successful academic careers.
But if Gov. Mike Dunleavy reprises his budget cuts, the Head Start program, administered locally by Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, will have to close at least three of its centers in the Juneau area, said Tlingit and Haida President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson.
“It’s unfortunate that our youngest citizens have to bear the brunt of the governor’s vetoes,” said Amber Frommherz, the Head Start Director for Tlingit and Haida, who runs the Head Start Programs in and around Juneau. The overall mission of Head Start is to serve children who are from low income homes or in ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experience) type environments, Frommherz said.
Early childhood stress and trauma has lasting effects on the physical and mental health of humans, according to the Center for Disease Control. Like a shockwaves traveling through a rigid structure, it leaves the surface unblemished but weakens the internal support, leaving people less resilient and more prone to risky behaviors, chronic health problems, low life potential and early death, according to the CDC. Head Start aims to mitigate that.
“Kids that have preschool go on to graduate,” Peterson said. “I think all our kids deserve that opportunity.”
The Head Start program in Juneau is still accepting applications to classes, even as they prepare to tighten their belt in the face of budget cuts, said Frommherz.
“We’re not just an academic organization, we’re comprehensive,” Frommherz said.
Stabilizing a child’s early experiences through a number of avenues to give them a solid foundation for the rest of their life is part of Head Start’s remit.
“We try to mitigate those barriers. We offer parenting classes. We connect parents to a mental health clinician. We connect them with healthy food,” Frommherz said.
With the budget cuts made by Dunleavy’s vetoes, Juneau will have to shutter three centers, leaving nearly 60 children without any other options for early-childhood development. Closing the classrooms will also end other services to the children and their families.
Across the state, Frommherz said, nearly 500 children will be left without the services of Head Start, often in the most disadvantaged and impoverished communities least able to take the blow.
“Since we’re serving in very rural, remote, isolated parts of Alaska, it’s difficult for those villages to support that level of funding,” said Frommherz.
The Rural Alaska Community Action Program, another nonprofit supporting about 24 Head Start Centers, will have to close 11 of those centers as part of the proposed cuts.
“The benefits of Head Start programming far surpass gains in academic achievement. Head Start and Parents as Teachers provide children with the foundation to become healthy, successful, and capable adults,” said Kristin Ramstad, RurAL CAP Child Development Division Director, in a press release.
The state, which contributes a substantial part of the funding to the program, will remove a great deal of it. The federal government, which matches 80 percent to the state’s 20 percent, will also lower its funding. Frommherz said they’re currently scrutinizing their entire budget, trying to identify anywhere they can compensate for the loss of nearly half a million dollars in state funding to the Head Start classrooms Tlingit and Haida administers.
“We’ve had offers from the community to support us in different ways,” said Frommherz, but the schools will still need help. The Head Start program was a partnership with the state, Frommherz said, and with the abrupt withdrawal of half the partnership, the program is in jeopardy. “Every other year, the state has pulled through,” said Frommherz. “Reach out to your representatives. They need to know early childhood education is important is important to Alaska.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.