Azeb Tsegay credits Early Head Start with helping her 5-year-old 
daughter, Sara, get admitted into a gifted kindergarten. She wanted her
youngest son, Nathaniel, to have the same opportunity and enrolled him
in the program as well.

Azeb Tsegay credits Early Head Start with helping her 5-year-old daughter, Sara, get admitted into a gifted kindergarten. She wanted her youngest son, Nathaniel, to have the same opportunity and enrolled him in the program as well.

But this coming fall, he—and hundreds of other Chicago youngsters—may lose his slot when federal stimulus money runs out.

Nationally, agencies that operate Early Head Start programs are set to lose nearly $1.2 billion in temporary stimulus money in late September, when the two-year spending window ends.

Although it’s not clear yet how programs will handle the loss of money, about 600 slots for children will likely be lost in the Chicago area, leaving fewer than 1,000 open.

Statewide, 2,200 slots are in danger, leaving just 2,000 available. About 600 adults will lose their jobs.

The federal stimulus funds nearly doubled the size of Early Head Start nationally. But losing the funds will leave only enough slots for fewer than 3 percent of the children who are eligible.

Early Head Start serves low-income children from birth to age 3, teaching them social skills, the alphabet and shapes, language and dramatic play. Experts say that, even as early as age 3, children who are not exposed to a rich, stimulating environment—as middle-class children usually experience—fall behind and have a hard time catching up once they enter school.

“We have scores of children who enter kindergarten with the decks stacked against them,” says Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based social service agency that runs early education programs. “We’re going to lose the opportunity [to change that]. When you educate people about the importance of early education and then you take it away, you are creating mistrust among the very people you want to have trust in institutions, in schools. And that’s really awful.”

There’s high demand for Early Head Start. The program Tsegay’s son attends has a waiting list of about 250. Some families remain on waiting lists for several years, until their child only has a year left to participate.

Early education advocates had pinned their hopes on the recent lame-duck session of Congress to keep the funding that allowed programs to expand. But legislators didn’t pass a spending bill to do so. While there’s still a chance that the money could be restored, political observers and experts say Republican gains in Congress make that scenario unlikely.

In addition to the Early Head Start losses, over 550 Illinois slots in the regular Head Start program for 3- and 4-year-olds are also in jeopardy. And if federal spending is rolled back further, even more Head Start and Early Head Start spots could be at risk.

Stimulus money also helped the state offer child care to more families, and to expand the time period during which child care is provided while eligible parents search for jobs. About 9,700 children – about 4 percent of the roughly 248,000 children in the state who take part in the program – will lose state-subsidized child care, or will have their child care co-payments increased, as a result of the stimulus “funding cliff.”

Chicago’s stimulus money included about $360,000 for capital expenses at the Uptown center where Nathaniel is enrolled, which added three classrooms with space for 24 more children.

Another Christopher House location, in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, added 40 Early Head Start spots. (Christopher House is also using $1 million in stimulus money to help cover the cost of a new $7 million facility, the Belmont-Cragin Family Resource Center.)

But the expanded programs are left in a precarious position.  “We will have a facility, and then we’ll be burdened to find funding for the program,” says Julie Dakers, director of early childhood development services at Christopher House. To do so, the agency expects to increase class sizes and mix the remaining Early Head Start money with child care subsidies and state funds from the state’s Prevention Initiative, a birth-to-3 program.

The expected loss of Early Head Start slots would be a set-back for parents as well as children.

One recent morning, in a class for babies from 6 weeks to 14 months old, three teachers keep watch over eight small children. A mom is in the room as well, since parents are encouraged to participate as the children get used to the class.  Also, says Dakers, “it’s a time for the teachers to build a rapport with the parents.”

All the grown-ups are wearing disposable booties over their shoes to keep the carpet clean, because babies love to put everything in their mouths. The instructors try to build on children’s current developmental stage, Dakers says. “If a child is almost ready to walk, we’ll start doing cruising activities,” she explains.

Next door, in a class for 2-year-olds, several youngsters are playing dress-up in a child-size play kitchen.

“They role-play things they do at home, things they see, naming the objects help them with their language,” says head teacher Dallen Moreno. The objects also help students who aren’t talking yet to communicate. “They are learning how to socialize with others. They get to demonstrate things they have done at home, make connections.”

Tsegay thinks the enrichment activities helped put Sara ahead of two older siblings who did not attend the program.

“Socially, Sara doesn’t have any fear with the other [children]. She gets along with the teachers,” Tsegay says. “We don’t think of it as science or art. But when they observe, with the water table, how things float or don’t float, [they are learning].”

Even worse, Tsegay might have to leave her job as a pharmacy technician at Weiss Memorial Hospital so that she can stay home with 18-month-old Nathaniel. Though her husband also works, with four children, the family can’t afford the additional child care that she would need.

Tsegay can’t rely on relatives. Her family and her husband’s family are back in Ethiopia, which she left 19 years ago as a refugee. “But we have Christopher House,” she says. “That’s my family. It’s the only family I have here.”

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