By the end of June, most school children will celebrate the end of pencils and books.
But for the families served by Holy Cross Head Start in Akron, summer may mean a permanent end for their local kindergarten prep.
For years, Holy Cross has faced difficulty maintaining income-eligible enrollment and will close its doors by late June, said Cortland Purks, executive director for Holy Cross Head Start.
“This is a big loss in our community for children who are low-income,” said Melissa Waterbury, a parent who also serves on two committees for Holy Cross Head Start in Akron. “It’s a great program, they’re able to have a healthy lunch and a healthy breakfast.”
Although the federal pre-kindergarten program is available to both families living under and above the poverty line, above-income eligible families can only make up 10 percent of a program’s participants.
While Akron has 84 percent eligible enrollment today, it has struggled to find low-income participants in the past.
Last academic year, the program had only 58 percent income-eligible children enrolled. The previous two years saw 48 percent and 60 percent income-eligibility enrollment, respectively.
While Purks believes there is a deserving population in Akron that Head Start could serve, U.S. Census data shows Akron is not the neediest of the needy in Holy Cross’s service area, which includes Tonawanda, Akron, North Buffalo and the West Side. The median household income on the West Side is $24,000 less than in Akron, according to U.S. Census data and a 2014 community needs assessment by the Community Action Organization.
With 32 children, Akron makes up 6.4 percent of the 499 children enrolled in Holy Cross Head Start, compared with 366 children on the West Side.
Federal guidelines also mandate Head Start programs maintain a waiting list. While 89 children are waiting on the West Side, Akron’s waiting list stands at zero.
Akron’s lower population of eligible families has made recruiting more difficult for Cynthia Mix-Schoenrock, social services coordinator for Holy Cross Head Start. But she also deals with families who refuse to reveal their income, which is necessary for enrollment. Purks has had at least three families who would have enrolled, but cited the proof of income requirement as a privacy issue.
“That at times has been an obstacle,” Mix-Schoenrock said.
Although Purks announced in April that the Akron location would close this June, the program is working on options for six 3-year-olds enrolled who would be qualify for a second year of Head Start.
“We’re working very hard to determine what to do for those kids” he said. “Because they deserve a second year.”
The program could bus the children to its nearest site in Tonawanda or in Niagara County, but those options are off the table if the ride takes an hour or more.
Instead, Holy Cross could continue one more year of Head Start for those six children, plus recruit eight new students to fulfill the minimum amount needed for a class. Holy Cross would also continue to recruit, in order to maintain its waiting list, Purks said.
Erika Karl, Akron’s center director, also hopes to keep the four Head Start teachers now employed at Akron within Holy Cross’ service area.
Still, Akron families mourned the loss of a community program and praised teachers who changed their children’s lives. Waterbury watched her shy 4-year-old daughter, Brynleigh, come out of her shell since she began Head Start. During her school day, Brynleigh practiced fine motor skills, painting and sensory activities.
“Brynleigh’s been writing her name since she was three,” she said. “Within the last two years, she has blossomed.”
Akron’s closure will also hurt those families already working on a tight budget. For Kelly Rossi, Community Action’s assessment that Akron’s median household income hovers at $54,000 didn’t jibe with the reality of her peers, who may struggle to make $30,000 a year.
Rossi, an Akron parent who has put three children through Head Start, was hoping her two-year-old could start next year. But with Akron’s closure, she’s been priced out of nearby pre-schools and the closest Head Start location in Tonawanda is too far.
“Pre-schools are so expensive,” she said. “I can’t afford that when I have a family of eight, my kids would be going without things that they need.”