70,000-plus Estimated children nationwide who will be cut from Head Start this year
622 Children in Head Start in Chattanooga
226 Children in Early Head Start in Chattanooga
$458,000 Estimated cuts made in local Head Start this year
50 Head Start slots cut in Chattanooga
14 Early Head Start slots cut locally
15 Head Start sites in Chattanooga including North Chattanooga
Several Latino mothers say their children were shy and did not speak before enrolling in the North Chattanooga Head Start/Early Head Start program. Now their children hold conversations in English and Spanish, know their ABC's and have become more sociable.
That's why the parents are so concerned that the North Chattanooga Head Start site is scheduled to close at the end of this month.
"There's got to be something better than shutting it down," said Danielle Davis, a working mom whose son attends the program.
The North Chattanooga Head Start is among sites across the nation that are closing because of federal sequestration -- the process that triggered an estimated $85 billion in across-the-board cuts after President Barack Obama, the House and the Senate failed to trim $1 trillion from the federal deficit.
The sequester began March 1, and the Head Start cuts are the latest way the process is trickling down to the average person. Among other things, cuts have reduced the amount of federal money that public schools receive and lowered some unemployment benefits.
In all, the sequester mandates a 5 percent cut in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funds.
That means federally funded Head Start services will be discontinued for 70,000-plus children across the nation, said Sherry Hutsell, director of Chattanooga Head Start/Early Head Start.
In Chattanooga, the cuts will keep more than 60 children from the Head Start/Early Head Start programs. Head Start officials here must cut 5.27 percent from their budget. That's nearly $458,000, Hutsell said.
To do that, Hutsell is closing the North Chattanooga Head Start site, which has operated for two decades. It is the only site of the 15 in Chattanooga that will close.
But there could be other reductions, as well.
"This is just the first cut," Hutsell said. "Unless something happens at the Congress level, then cuts will continue to happen. And we'll have to look at other ways to save money."
The sequestration is a 10-year plan, so there will be additional cuts each year, Hutsell said. This is the first year the program has cut funding since she started working for Head Start in 1985.
"We've been flat-funded and not had an increase, but this is the first cut," she said.
The Chattanooga Head Start program is one of 20 in the country recognized by the National Head Start Association as a Head Start of Excellence, Hutsell said.
Instead of jeopardizing the quality of Head Start by trying to serve more children with less money, Hutsell said, some cuts will be made in the number of children the program serves.
The city now serves 622 children in its Head Start program. That number will be reduced by 50 by not filling empty slots when a child ages out of the program. And 14 slots will be cut from the 226 infants and toddlers served by Early Head Start in-home services, she said.
Children from North Chattanooga who are not entering kindergarten will be offered placement at other sites. And all teachers from North Chattanooga will be employed at other sites, Hutsell said.
Head Start provides education and heath services for children from low-income families. The goal is to give them as much preparation for school as children from families with more resources.
"These are our community's most vulnerable people, and we should be looking out for them first," said Perrin Lance, co-founder of the nonprofit group Chattanooga Organized for Action.
COA helped the parents of children at the North Chattanooga site organize to voice their concerns about its pending closure.
Mothers say they appreciate having a Head Start site in walking distance of their homes, and they would be working just to pay for a sitter or gas if they had to take their children to Head Start elsewhere.
"Without Head Start a lot of children wouldn't be able to get help until it's time for them to start school," Davis said.
Head Start also helps with health care and education, she said.
Any reduction in service affects children and families, "so I don't think we can be happy with any site closing," said Anne Gamble, project director for Teachers HELP, a grant project at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Research proves that Head Start affects the success of children in school, Gamble said.
But there are questions about whether the program's early benefits translate to improved outcomes.
A study prepared in 2010 for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that while Head Start provided benefits for 3- and 4-year-olds in cognitive, health and parenting areas, the improvements were "largely absent by first grade."
Nearly a dozen mothers and their infant and toddler children sat in a circle at the North Chattanooga Recreation Center this month strategizing about what they could do to keep the center open.
The city at least could provide transportation to another site, Lance said.
Hutsell said Head Start doesn't have money for transportation.
She said the program once provided transportation, but it was cut about five years ago to save money.
She said the North Chattanooga Head Start site was selected to be closed because the community had more people with higher incomes moving into the neighborhood compared to neighborhoods such as Avondale and Alton Park.
That is not fair, Davis said. Poor people still live in North Chattanooga and need service.
"Just because we don't have a billboard saying 'I'm poor' doesn't mean we're not out here," she said.
Of the 75 children attending the North Chattanooga Head Start, only 17 of them live in that community, Hutsell said.
And 40 of the 75 children enrolled are in prekindergarten, which means that they will be in kindergarten next year and no longer in Head Start, she said.
"We would love to keep it open," Hutsell said. "But there's just not that availability."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman @timesfreepress.com or call 423-757-6431.