Teachers, lawmakers and children rallied on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Oct. 2 to protest the closing of Head Start programs they credited with promoting motivation, leadership, and early-learning skills.
The government shutdown on Oct. 1 potentially left 19,000 vulnerable children without Head Start services, said advocates. They contended that 23 programs across 11 states were left without grant money due to the Congressional impasse.
The loss of programming funds came on top of cuts made to the program due to the federal budget sequester, which resulted in the loss of Head Start slots for over 57,000 at-risk children, according to the National Head Start Association (NHSA.)
The protest entitled “Stop the Cuts: Stand Up for Head Start” brought together government leaders, as well as program alumni from state programs, who hoped to help persuade Congress of the numerous benefits the program has to offer.
“Head Start equalizes the playing field by giving every child a chance to succeed, no matter where they come from or live,” said Joel Ryan, Executive Director for the Washington Head Start Association.
Founded in 1965, Head Start is a federal program that promotes school readiness for children up to age five from low-income families. The program serves to enhance cognitive, social and emotional development while also including health, nutrition and other social services, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Wall Street Journal reported that as of Friday Oct. 4, 15 Head Start programs in the local area had already closed. Protesters said they feared such closings could have a negative impact upon children’s development.
“This is an outrage to me because education is important,” said Tyrone Wilson, father of two children currently enrolled in the program.
“We always say we want change and we want our kids to do better than us… but how can they be positive if we’re cutting back funding for education? It’s almost like you’re forcing them out into the streets or out into the negative environment.” Wilson says if his daughters’ program is cut, he will have problems finding day care for them. Along with free meals, Head Start provided a childcare environment for the children, so that their parents can maintain full-time jobs.
For single mother Victoria Hunt, the program provided temporary housing when she was left homeless while pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter. “Without this program, my daughter and I may still be living in a parking lot or worse,” she said. “I urge Congress to get rid of this sequester so more children and families don’t lose this important lifeline.” Hunt said that the program helped advance her daughter’s cognitive and motor skills, who now has the vocabulary of a 3-year-old. Head Start also allotted Hunt the time to go back to school and pursue her dreams of higher education.
Don Owens, a Head Start alumnus, said he hoped not only to keep the program running for the homeless and those in need, but to extend it to all children. “We need to expand Head Start, not just for the low income,” he said. The tools the program provided helped keep Owens out of trouble and gave him a love of learning early on. He said the friendships he made from the program are still thriving today because he learned about the importance of community. “Everyone should have access to high quality early care and education,” he said.