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Head Start to get cash boost

Parents, program director hope stimulus will speed up waiting list for enrollees.

Lynn Karosas, center, put her son Tristan on a waiting list for Early Head Start when he was 5 months old. He turns 2 this week. Her daughter Trinity, 5, was in the program.

PETE G. WILCOX/THE TIMES LEADER

HAZLETON – Tristan Karosas was on a waiting list for Early Head Start before he could walk. Mom Lynn loved what Head Start had done for her daughter Trinity so much she put her younger son on the list by the time he was 5 months old.

He turns 2 this week, and is still waiting.

Details of how the federal stimulus money will affect early-childhood education in Pennsylvania have yet to be fleshed out, according to state Department of Education Spokesman Michael Race, but there’s a promise of a big infusion of cash for Head Start and Early Head Start, and with any luck that will mean Tristan gets into the program this year. After all, he bumped up in priority on the waiting list in February, when he was diagnosed with a speech problem.

Local Head Start Executive Director Lynn Evans Biga said she’s hoping the money will open up 100 slots for Head Start, geared for 3-to-5-year-olds, and another 100 for Early Head Start, which runs from birth to 3. It costs about $8,000 per pupil for the nine-month Head Start program, and about $12,000 for year-round Early Head Start, so that would require about $1.2 million. Currently, about $82 million is expected to flow to Head Start and child care statewide.

Early childhood and Head Start funding increases are part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law Feb. 17 by President Barack Obama. The program includes selected tax cuts and incentives to spur certain consumer and business spending.

Money to bring 200 more children into Head Start may sound like a lot, but Biga noted that the waiting list in Hazleton – where Karosas lives – is already at 187. And Biga’s organization covers all of Luzerne and Wyoming counties.

Even when the money is doled out, it’s not simply a case of enrolling children, Biga has repeatedly stressed. Finding space is one problem; the agency has always struggled to get classrooms, particularly since most local school districts – an ideal partner when possible – are facing crowding issues these days.

There’s also the problem of finding qualified staff. The movement has been toward hiring teachers with bachelor’s degrees in early education. In fact, the state is revamping teacher certification to make early education a separate category. So far, supply has not kept up with demand. And there’s always the question of sustaining funding after the stimulus money evaporates. The law provides money for only two years.

How the money will affect availability of quality child care is even murkier. The state has released no information on the topic.

None of which changes the fundamental promise that more children will get more attention at an earlier age. As Biga and other proponents love to point out, studies have shown spending on early education and childhood development pays for itself by reducing the amount of money spent later to help children who start school behind their classmates in skills. It also decreases the odds those children will end up on welfare, in prison, or in need of government-subsidized health insurance.

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