Budget cuts hit children hardest in city

Filed under: Contributed Column,Opinion,Print | Tags:, ,

We all can agree that we want a ready, capable workforce in Colorado Springs. We want access to a continuous supply of skilled and knowledgeable workers.

A skilled workforce creates a strong and expanding business climate, and drives economic growth and fiscal sustainability.

But how do we go about achieving such a workforce?

As CEO of Community Partnership for Child Development, the county’s grantee for Head Start, I can tell you it all begins with investing in our youngest citizens, particularly those living in limited-income homes, who have special needs or are experiencing other adverse circumstances that could challenge their school readiness.

Nearly 13,000 children younger than age 6 wake up in poverty every day in El Paso County.

Through Head Start, Early Head Start and the Colorado Preschool Program, CPCD serves approximately 2,000 of these children, who typically come to us 12 to 18 months behind their peers in development.

Without attending programs like those at CPCD, these children are more likely to start school unprepared and never catch up.

In the past few years, the Great Recession has had a dire impact on families. More families are coming to us for the early education their children need but that they otherwise could not afford.

Times are tough, but at CPCD, we believe that every child deserves a high-quality early childhood education with comprehensive services, such as family support, nutrition, health, behavioral health and transportation.

Children who participate in programs such as Head Start are less likely to be involved in criminal activity or arrested, rely on social services such as welfare, and have children out of wedlock. Given an early childhood education, they are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, earn more as adults and own a home.

Nobel Laureate Economist James Heckman has proven that an investment in early childhood education yields a return of 7 to 10 percent per year, per child through greater economic productivity and the reduction of costs in education, health and criminal justice expenses.

The educational and life success of every child in our community, regardless of social status, must be our highest priority in order to develop and sustain a competitive and skilled workforce.

I’ve seen first-hand the impact that a high-quality early childhood education with family support can have on disadvantaged children and families. One of our current parents — a young mother with two children under age 6 — came to us by referral from a program for homeless families.

After just one year in CPCD’s Head Start program, her two children are thriving in the classroom and she is well on her way to a degree in nursing. And that’s just one of many success stories.

As reported by the Business Journal recently, on March 1, sequestration went into effect, causing devastating budget cuts to Head Start and Early Head Start programs, slamming shut the window of opportunity for nearly 70,000 at-risk children nationwide.

Due to sequestration, CPCD’s budget was cut by $550,000. We were forced to close five classrooms and cut 142 slots for children in need, growing our wait-list of more than 500 to date. Closed classrooms have also meant lost jobs at CPCD, a major employer in Colorado Springs.

We cannot let this continue to happen to our community’s most vulnerable citizens.

In response to sequestration, CPCD created the Fill-A-Seat Project, encouraging the community to rise to the occasion and fill seats left empty by sequestration. The agency is selling preschool chairs that have been hand-painted by Head Start children for $500 each in hopes of raising $135,000, which would reinstate 30 of the 142 cut slots. To date, CPCD has sold 62 chairs, raised $31,000 and saved nearly seven slots.

The facts are clear: If we start by providing all children, regardless of economic status, with a high quality early childhood education, we will give all children the chance to reach their greatest potential in school and life and become contributing members of our community.

Noreen Landis-Tyson is CEO of the Community Partnership for Child Development (CPCD) in Colorado Springs.