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Head Start cuts hit Arkansas programs 

Parents (and research) say that early childhood education pays huge dividends for years to come, but funding challenges loom

Five years ago, Charlotte Franklin happened to see the sign for Head Start at its central office on Colonel Glenn Road. Her son Christopher was then 3 years old and was staying at home with her. Franklin had been laid off and couldn't afford childcare. She wanted to get back to work, and she also wanted her son to begin his education.

"I thought it was time for him to get in a school environment, to start to socialize with peers of his age, and get those basic fundamentals before he went to kindergarten," Franklin said.

Enrolling him in the pre-K program was one of the best decisions she's ever made, she said. "I could see the difference. His vocabulary expanded. He gained a lot of confidence. He was eager and excited about learning."

It wasn't just lessons in the classroom. Head Start offered health, dental and mental-health screenings. It provided nutritious breakfast and lunch. Teachers did home visits, and helped Franklin develop teaching and parenting skills that she could apply at home. "They helped identify things, maybe as a parent, you don't see it," she said. "You're caught up in your struggles, you're trying to provide, you're trying to keep your own emotions in check. They helped me as a parent, helped me put a plan together." Franklin and other parents were invited to come in and volunteer, and she found the teachers and staff were eager to offer support and ideas to parents, and foster connections between the classroom and home. Franklin got involved in leadership roles in Head Start's policy council, and the program also encouraged her to identify her own goals, even helping her in the process of looking for a job.

When it came time for kindergarten, Franklin said that she noticed a big difference in how Christopher adapted compared with his two older brothers, neither of whom had the pre-K programming Christopher did.

"He already had the base of what he needed when he went to kindergarten," Franklin said.

He had been taught skills like sight words, colors and counting. Equally important, Franklin said, he had a comfort and confidence in being at school, interacting with other children, and following directions from a teacher. Simple things: he was already used to using a pencil and paper, lining up, following a schedule.

Franklin said that she wished she could go back and send his brothers to Head Start too. "It was just a world of difference with his readiness for kindergarten and progressing on after that," she said. "You can really change the direction of a child's life. I can just look at it in my old household."

Christopher is set to begin third grade at eStem in the fall, where he has been on the honor roll since kindergarten. Franklin believes that pre-school helped "carve out a path in life for him. It gave him that good educational foundation."

"He would come home and say words and everyone would say, 'How does he know that word?' " she remembers. "And using them in the right context! It would amaze me. I would just think, 'wow.' Because I know: Head Start did that."

Head Start (for 3- to 5-year-olds) and Early Head Start (prenatal, infants and toddlers) are federally funded programs offering pre-school education, health and nutrition services, social and emotional development, and intensive parent support for children and their families below or near the poverty line. Head Start organizations across the nation have been hit with funding cuts imposed by sequestration, the automatic cuts that went into effect last March when Congress failed to reach a budget agreement. The White House has estimated that up to 70,000 children could lose slots in the program because of sequestration.

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