GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Maintenance crews are busy cleaning Head Start schools in Harrison County this summer. They want everything to look perfect when three and four year olds return to classes this fall. But no matter how much they polish, the start of the school year will tarnished by cuts to the Head Start program.
According to the National Head Start Association, 70,000 at-risk children will be cut from Head Start programs across the country this year. That's because federal cuts call for a 1.5% reduction in funding for Head Start.
"We're going to lose 100 children due to sequestration next year."
Dr. Barbara Coatney is the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency which oversees eight Head Start centers in south Mississippi. She admits she's worried about the cuts.
"Presently we are serving 1,368 children, and as of next year we will have less than that. We will have 1,268. We will have to let parents know that we can put you on a waiting list, but we just don't have the space."
Dr. Coatney says the list to get in the Head Start program is already long. Last year, there were as many as 600 children on the waiting list. So for low-income parents who rely on Head Start, these cuts will not be easy.
"It breaks your heart when you know that parents need to go to work, and they need to have child care," says Dr. Coatney. "Child care is very expensive."
Head Start offers comprehensive care for children, at no charge to low-income parents. Staff are reviewing the more than 1,100 applicants right now, to identify families with the greatest need. Those children get first priority. But Dr. Coatney says it's so hard knowing more families will be turned away this year.
"It seems that for me, in this country that we should be able to take care of our most fragile resource, and that is our children. And that's not happening with sequestration."
Dr. Barbara Coatney says she feels our state also has an obligation to take care of Pre-K children. Mississippi lawmakers recently passed funding to support Mississippi's first pre-K program, but it requires matching funds - something Dr. Coatney says they don't have. But the new law says Head Start can ask for money from private businesses, school districts and nonprofits to match state funds.
Dr. Coatney also says Gulf Coast Community Action Agency will also have to cut several full time Head Start employees, but no word yet when those cuts will happen.