Funding limits Head Start opportunities

More than 90 local children are waiting to get into a low-income preschool program, and hundreds more qualify but don’t apply.

The Head Start program, which is a federally funded preschool program, had to cut staff and students from its Franklin center last year because of budget cuts. Earlier this year, funding was restored, and the Head Start center in Franklin now has more staff and students than it did before the reduction.

But the programs in Greenwood and Franklin still don’t have enough space for all of the families who want to send their children to learn letter recognition, counting and other essential lessons before starting kindergarten.

About 500 children in Johnson County qualify for the Head Start program, meaning they’re at least 3 years old and their families meet federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means their income is at or below $23,850. Right now, 133 children, or about 27 percent of those who qualify for the program, are enrolled at Head Start centers in Greenwood, Franklin and Edinburgh, Human Services executive director Jill Hammer said.

Seventeen families are on a waiting list to enroll their children at the Franklin center, and 75 families are waiting at the Greenwood center. Many of those children will reach kindergarten age before there’s room for them at a preschool, Hammer said.

The Head Start center in Edinburgh doesn’t have any students on the waiting list, Hammer said.

The waiting lists are a concern because students who don’t have at least one year of preschool, which prepares them for the lessons they’ll learn in elementary school, are considered already behind on their first day of kindergarten, school officials have said.

The situation was worse last year, when federal funding for Head Start was cut and 19 of the kids attending Head Start in Franklin were dropped from the program. Johnson County and four other central Indiana counties lost a total of $127,866 in Head Start funding last year.

The Franklin center had to cut $46,000, which meant losing a teacher, a classroom assistant and transportation for students. A lottery determined which students would remain in the program last year, and enrollment fell to 54 students.

Over the summer, the federal government returned full funding to the Head Start program, which allowed the Franklin center to replace the teacher and classroom assistant who had been cut and add back the 19 spots for students.

Officials at Human Services, which oversees Head Start, also set aside funding for another teacher at the Franklin center, which allowed them to add 14 more children, bringing total enrollment to 87, Hammer said.

Money for the new teacher came from funds that had been intended for a Head Start center in Bartholomew County. But there isn’t as much as high a demand in Bartholomew County, due in part to other preschool programs in that area, Hammer said.

“Since the need seemed to be in Johnson County, we moved the (staff) to Johnson County,” Hammer said.

Johnson County has about 50 preschools, but school districts don’t always know enough about the programs in their area to be able to recommend them to parents. Most of the county’s preschools are farther north, and not all families can afford them.

That’s why the waiting list for Greenwood’s Head Start center has 75 names now and sometimes hits 100, Hammer said.

“I think the options are there

for people who can afford them,” she said.

In the past two years, Franklin and Edinburgh schools have partnered with Johnson County Learning Centers to create preschools that include spots for students from low-income families. Edinburgh began running its preschool exclusively last year, and Franklin schools is considering taking over its preschool program next school year.

Greenwood schools also is working with Johnson County Learning Centers to create a preschool for students in the northeast part of the city, where the number of low-income families in the school district is highest.

Students who are a year away from beginning kindergarten typically are put at the top of the list for enrollment at Head Start. As school districts open their own preschools, that enables Head Start to enroll younger students and give those students more exposure to counting, coloring and other lessons that will prepare them for kindergarten, Hammer said.

She said she wants to be able to provide preschool to more students from low-income homes. But that can’t happen without an increase in federal funding, which is unlikely, she said.

“There’s not any growth potential there, unless we get private funding,” she said. “If there was funding, I’m sure we could expand quite a bit.”

By the numbers

Here are the enrollment and waiting list numbers for local Head Start centers:

Number of Johnson County students who qualify for Head Start: 500

Greenwood center: 30 students enrolled; 75 students on a waiting list

Franklin center: 87 students enrolled; 17 students on a waiting list

Edinburgh center: 16 students enrolled; 0 students on a waiting list

SOURCE: Human Services Inc.