By Christopher Smith
TUNNEL HILL — Director Kaye Ralston said she cried for a week when she heard the news.
Westside Head Start — a 50-year program educating pre-k students from low-income homes in west Whitfield County — will close at the end of July. Classroom doors will be locked, lights will be turned off and the playground will be vacant after the last summer classes.
The closing is a direct result of federal sequestration, said several Head Start officials. Sequestration is a term referring to automatic and widespread budget cuts to federally funded agencies, including Head Start programs, that began on March 1. Cuts in fiscal year 2013 are expected to be $85.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Congress approved the act and President Obama signed it into law.
“This really hits home,” Ralston said. “There will be local children — here — who won’t have anywhere to go.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without them,” said Latisha Walters, who has three children at the center, which provides many of its services for free.
The budget reduction translated to $450,000 in cuts to the Rossville-based Family Resource Agency of North Georgia’s $8 million budget. The agency provides Head Start programs to 1,014 children from low-income families through 23 centers in North Georgia including seven centers currently in Whitfield County.
“Last week we found out that it would be our center that would close,” Ralston said. “This is a very sad thing. This is a historic place. Most students will have to go to other Head Start programs closer to the city and some of the parents can’t afford to drive all that way so some students will miss out. There are other day care and preschool programs through churches nearby, but those can be expensive.”
That’s exactly what Walters is worried about. Walters put her children — ages 2, 3 and 4 — into the program after having gone through it herself as a child.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next year,” she said. “I work part time. I can’t afford a day care. I don’t think I could afford to drive them to Dalton with gas prices the way they are. I just don’t think this is fair. I don’t think it’s fair that they close the only one in our area.
“For me to sit down and teach them the stuff they learn over there would be very difficult, but because of the program my 2-year-old was talking before he even turned 1. That’s directly from Head Start. My kids amaze me at the things they know and learn. I know it’s from those teachers.”
Melanie Headen said she would be in the same situation if her son Colton wasn’t starting kindergarten in the next school year.
“I’m a single mom and a full-time student at Dalton State College,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do if Colton wasn’t starting school. Honestly, I don’t know what I would’ve done without Head Start. I couldn’t afford other options. I can’t work when I’m already doing 16 credit hours on top of student teaching. There’s just no time for me to work until I graduate.”
That’s exactly why Head Start programs exist, said Ralston.
“The Head Start program started in 1965 as sort of a social initiative,” she said. “For things like nutrition, to teach families how to prepare for health-related things. But now it’s under an educational umbrella. We teach these kids a lot, we prepare them for school. We teach things like math that they might not get anywhere else.”
Headen says her son is already counting as a result.
“He hasn’t even started kindergarten and he can add,” she said. “I know it’s because the teachers there work well with him. There’s a lot of that one-on-one interaction. I know that helps a whole lot. They are great teachers.”
Some of those teachers will be out of a job come July.
Ralston said there are 27 staff members at Westside and 18 positions open at nearby centers, which means cuts will happen.
Angie Mathis, who has taught at Westside Head Start for 24 years, said she’s scared of what will happen after the center closes.
“I’m concerned about me not having a job. I’m not going to lie about that,” she said. “But I’m more concerned about this community — my community. I grew up and went to school here and I’m worried about the kids. It’s about the kids.
“What’s going to happen to these kids on this side of the county? Who will serve them? They really need something before they go to kindergarten now. I think the lawmakers need to look closer at some of the things that are happening.”
Ralston said after she learned Westside would close she urged parents to contact U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, and U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Republicans from Georgia.
“We made posters and we sent them to their offices,” Ralston said.
“They take our posters and they send you a letter back,” she said. “A generic letter they send to everyone. No one ever called.”
On Friday, Sen. Isakson said, “This is yet another example of why sequestration is a bad idea and the worst possible way to make spending cuts. I am very concerned about the harmful effects that the sequester is having on our nation’s children and educators, and I am continuously working to ensure adequate funding of educational programs and to find a way to best allocate federal government resources. It is my hope that Congress will come together and get our spending in order so this will never happen again.”
“I just feel we need to bring more awareness about what’s happening to the public,” Ralston said. “We’ve tried to get the community to call and for the parents to call and send letters. We haven’t heard anything back from lawmakers. Nothing. And the sad thing is that education is getting cut. With the way the economy is, Head Start is needed even more now than before.”
Melissa Hankins, assistant director with the Rossville office of Head Start, said other counties will also see cuts to classroom sizes. A total of 80 children — in addition to the 59 kids at Westside — won’t return to Head Start programs the next school year.
“Federal budget cuts very much impact our local community,” she said. “This was a hard decision to make. We looked at all the options — furloughs, day cuts, feedback from parents. Closing Westside was the best of the worst options available. It’s not something we wanted to do, but we had to do it.
“There’s nothing positive about this. Serving less students and families and staff being out of the job — this has really been hard. At this point the only thing we can do is contact lawmakers. That’s where we get our money, they are the ones who cut our money, that’s why we can’t stay open. We are a federally funded program.”
Ralston and Hankins both hope funding will return to normal levels, but right now they expect more cuts down the road.
“I really hope that doesn’t happen,” Ralston said. “I really hope, but I know that we’ll probably get cut again. Closing Westside will buy other centers some time. It will pay for the $450,000 and then some, so maybe it can also take on future cuts. We’ll have to see.”