Shutdown affects Connecticut Head Start preschools

Head Start preschool programs across Connecticut are facing the possibility of closure after the federal government shutdown last Tuesday.

Head Start, a federally-funded preschool program for low-income children ages 0-5, distributes funds to different cities on a scheduled basis. While New Haven received a five-year grant on July 1, the city of Bridgeport was due to receive funding on Oct. 1, the day the government shut down. Since Tuesday, Head Start was cut off for more than 800 children in Bridgeport.

“We’re left with this mess of finding these kids somewhere to go,” said Mary Evette Brantley, city councilwoman for Bridgeport. “A lot of people have to leave their kids with people they don’t know. With Head Start and these nonprofit agencies that depend on government funding, you at least have licensed daycare facilities that follow guidelines.”

For the more than 1,000 children who attend Head Start programs in Bridgeport, the programs’ temporary closure has meant their families have to look elsewhere for meals. Typically, these programs provide children two free meals per day.

On Friday, children attending Head Start programs in Bridgeport received emergency food donations from the Connecticut Food Bank, which delivered 17,000 food items to children across Bridgeport.

“We’re seeing a lot of desperation. It’s very disheartening,” said Bill Bevacqua, deputy director of Action for Bridgeport Community Development, a community organization that also houses one of Bridgeport’s Head Start preschools. “The government’s at this impasse, and we can’t expect anything soon.”

Currently, there are less than 200 children in Bridgeport still attending Head Start preschools because the programs they attend are funded by the state of Connecticut. Across the other 11 programs that have been closed, 300 Bridgeport Head Start employees were furloughed as a result of the lack of funding.

“And these are people who don’t make a lot of money to begin with,” Bevacqua said. “They don’t have a lot of reserves.”

Many parents with children in Head Start programs are “panicked,” he added, because they now have to find alternate child care arrangements.

Bevacqua said that his organization has contacted U.S. Congressmen Jim Himes about the current situation in Washington, but the congressman has not given them any indication that the situation will change soon.

“It is absolutely unconscionable that, because of petulant behavior by a small minority of irresponsible Members of Congress, nearly a thousand Bridgeport children are denied an education,” Himes said in a statement. “It is time for the Tea Party to come to the table, leave their ridiculous demands at home, and act on a budget that fully funds the United States Government.”

Bridgeport was the only county in Connecticut scheduled to receive funding on Oct. 1, but other counties scheduled to receive their funding later in the year may also be affected if the shutdown continues.

Since New Haven received a five-year grant to keep its current Head Start programs running, New Haven Public Schools Spokeswoman Abbe Smith said that the programs are in no immediate danger.

“We don’t anticipate any changes in the immediate term,” Smith said. “Thankfully.”

Last March, Connecticut permanently cut 730 Head Start spots due to mandatory budget cuts.

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