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Rep. Tonko Tours Schenectady Head Start Program To View Impact Of Sequester

Lucas Willard

New York Congressman Paul Tonko visited a Head Start Program in Schenectady today to draw attention to the effects of sequestration on community services.

Congressman Tonko visited Parsons Child & Family Center’s Early Head Start program in Schenectady, which serves families with children up to 3 years living at or below the federal poverty level.

Parsons' Early Head Start is one of many subsidized programs across the country that have felt the effects of sequestration, the across-the-board federal spending cuts that went into effect March 1st. According to estimates, 4,000 children in New York will lose access to Head Start programs.

The Early Head Start program provides both in-home and center-based early childhood care to low-income and special-needs families. Wendy Hopkinson, Senior Director of Early Childhood Services, said the 5 percent cut in federal aid, or $78,000,  has forced Parson’s to reconsider the number of children and families they’re able to service, and also led to the elimination of two-and-a-half staff positions. The cuts have halted home visitations to12 families.

"We looked at our waiting list and most of our children on the waiting list wanted the center-based care," said Hopkinson. "So we decided that we would need to cut home-based."

The Early Head Start program provides support for young children and adults, including child development, mental health, and hearing and vision screenings, parenting training, nutrition counseling, literacy programs, day care, child care referrals, and helps parents take on community leadership roles and prepare for careers.

Sharon Hutchinson-Jones, Assistant Director of the Early Learning Center for Parsons, said the decrease in federal funding prevents many families from accessing services.

"Those families really want to create a better situation for their families by getting training and getting a better-paying job," said Hutchinson-Jones. "We are fully enrolled and we're not able to offer services to anyone at this point and that is heart-breaking."

Jennifer Sandshaw, Supervisor for Special Education, said that when low-income families cannot access childhood development and mental health screenings early in a child’s life, it puts more of a burden on public schools as the children age.

"When we can't provide those services to the family, then that does have that domino-effect down the line for their education and it ends up going to the public schools and throughout their education," said Sandshaw.

Congressman Tonko, a Democrat from the 20th district, said that Head Start is an example of one program that has improved over the years and has proven vital to low-income communities, and is worthy of protecting.

"I have witnessed Head Start grow through the years where they've involved more training with parental involvement, " said Tonko. "We can point at a family and say they're not achieving, or we can strengthen that family, provide them hope, and give us the economic benefit that comes with it."

Congressman Tonko said that the only way to fight sequestration and restore funding to vital programs like Head Start is through a bipartisan and transparent budgeting process, and offered his own ideas of what that process should look like.

"Talk about revenues, talk about deficit reduction, talk about investment, talk about cuts, talk about cuts, talk about belt-tightening through waste-fraud inefficiency, and then academically put together the balance of programs that are critically important to the fabric of the community," said Tonko.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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