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Restored federal funding, with 3% bump, lets local Head Start maintain 29 programs

The recent national focus on providing universal prekindergarten to all children may have helped Erie County’s largest Head Start administrator maintain all of its programs this year, with the federal government restoring millions of dollars that had been cut in the sequester last year.

This year’s grant even bumped up the funding by 3 percent.

The $13.66 million awarded this week to the Community Action Organization of Erie County will be added to $7.36 million authorized earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As a result, the nonprofit group will continue to operate Head Start programs in 29 locations in Buffalo and Erie County.

The latest grant was announced Wednesday by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and CAO President and CEO L. Nathan Hare.

“This is a tremendous announcement,” Hare said at a news conference at the CAO offices.

He linked the early childhood programs and pre-K instruction provided to more than 2,100 children by Head Start to the Say Yes to Education effort in the Buffalo Public Schools.

“We have a historic opportunity in the City of Buffalo,” Hare said. “It means we can work in a cohesive way to transform Buffalo into a college-going community. With all our partners, the lattice now exists to allow us to get this done.”

The automatic federal spending cuts mandated in 2013, when Congress failed to agree on a budget, cut 57,000 children from Head Start programs nationwide, about 100 of them in programs in Erie County. Local staff members saw their hours reduced, and there were 20 layoffs, along with other program reductions.

The reinstated funding will help turn that around.

“This shows the positive role government can play when investments are targeted to the right place,” Higgins said, calling the grant “nation-building here at home.”

Along with its traditional Head Start programs, the CAO contracts with the Buffalo, Frontier and Akron school districts to provide pre-K to about 200 children. With its 2014-15 funding secured and the expansion of pre-K by the state, it expects to do more.

“We’re looking to position ourselves to help provide more of the universal pre-K in the county,” said Phyllis A. McBride, CAO early childhood administrator. “You don’t want teachers having to deal with these social-skills issues in first grade. Our teachers all have degrees in early childhood education and they know how to help children who have trouble regulating their behavior. (Pre-K) builds that foundation, so the children aren’t set up for failure later.”

That is particularly important for young children without resources at home, Hare said. Citing figures from 2012, he said of 19,500 children ages 3 and 4 in Erie County, 4,400 live at or below the federal poverty level.

The long-term educational effects of Head Start have been debated by researchers and politicians, with conflicting studies showing a range of results. McBride said the key is to involve the child’s family.

“We recruit these families, and it isn’t hard,” she said. “We ask them: What are your needs? Do you need health care? Do you need a home? Do you need a job? What can we do to help you reach sustainability?”

For some families, having children in Head Start gives the parents a chance to get more education themselves, or to work without worrying about child care. And in a few situations, McBride said, “we are reducing the instances of child abuse. If family members are stressed-out, the Head Start centers are a safe haven.”