The Head Start and Early Head Start programs in Champaign County spent about $6.8 million last year to prepare young children from low-income families for kindergarten.
But it is not enough.
Although the programs serve nearly 600 children, there are still 230 on the waiting list.
The programs vary in their offerings, ranging from half-day to all-day programs. Teachers instruct children through play, measure student’s progress and ensure that every child has a healthy meal.
In Champaign County, there are four Head Start facilities, located in Urbana, Champaign, Rantoul and Savoy. There are 75 teachers and teacher’s aides on staff during the regular school year.
Champaign County has about 46,000 persons who live under the poverty line out of a population of 205,761, or 22.3 percent, according to 2013 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. This compares with an Illinois poverty level of 14.1 percent.
Although Head Start provides many services, “the only goal for Head Start is kindergarten readiness,” said Cameron Moore, CEO of Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.
The planning commission oversees the Head Start programs and gets a combination of federal, state and local funding each year.
Ninety percent of families in the program have to be income eligible, with an income equal to or below the poverty line, and Head Start officials select other children based on whether the family has been homeless, if there are concerns about the child’s development and other criteria. For a family of four in Illinois to be income eligible, they must be making an annual income of $24,250 or lower, according to the national poverty guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The waiting list does not work on a first-come first-served basis. Spots in the program are given to the families with the most need. A point system is used to determine which families have the most need, Liffick said.
The 230 families with children on the waiting list are for both Head Start and Early Head Start. They are essentially the same programs, said Kathleen Liffick, director of the Early Childhood Division for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. But she said Head Start serves 3- to 5-year-olds and Early Head Start serves children younger than 3-years-old and pregnant mothers.
Head Start makes difference for mother
Liffick said by the time Head Start fills its fall enrollment for the new school year, the waiting list quickly starts adding up.
A mother who has experienced being on the wait list firsthand is Erin Van Horn. Van Horn was a single mother looking to go back to school when she heard about Head Start. She went through the application process, and after having to wait about a month, her daughter was accepted into the home-based program.
The average time on the wait list varies and depends on when enrolled families leave the program.
For the home-based program, a Head Start staff member comes to the family’s home and teaches through interacting with the child in the program and with his or her family.
“If it wasn’t for Head Start, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gone back to school, so that’s one of my biggest accomplishments,” Van Horn said.
She now has her bachelor’s degree in social work and hopes to be a family advocate for Head Start some day.
“I’d like to help other families and let them know…don’t stop or don’t feel discouraged. You can just get wherever you want to go,” Van Horn said.
Head Start’s budget is determined by government grants. According to Head Start’s annual reports, the total federal funding was around $4.7 for fiscal year 2013-2014. For the 2014-2015 fiscal year, it is around $5 million.
Seeking additional funding
“We’re pretty creative and aggressive about where can we find funding in addition to what we get from Head Start every year,” Moore, planning commission CEO, said. “ And as a result, we’ve been pretty successful at that, and so we continue to have a pretty high quality program.”
Aside from federal funding, money comes from programs like the Illinois State Board of Education, the Champaign County Board of Developmental Disabilities and gifts and donations, according to Head Start’s annual reports.
The federal government also sets the limit on how many children can be enrolled in the program. There must be 435 children enrolled in Head Start and 141 children enrolled in Early Head Start, Liffick said.
Sometimes there is an increase in the federal grants based on the cost of living increase, but there is not a guarantee that funds will increase. Even if funds do not increase, the number of children served must stay the same.
“So you don’t get any more money, but you have to keep doing everything that you’re already doing,” Moore said. “It’s difficult all the time.”
Although finding funding can be difficult, teacher Lynne McCown said she never feels like there is a lack of resources in the classroom.
McCown works as a family advocate for Head Start and as a pre-K mentor with Peter Pan Too, a local day care Head Start collaborates with.
Family advocates on staff help parents set long-term goals for their children and the family.
“We’re not fixers, but we provide parents with resources,” McCown said.
Getting families off waiting list
Sometimes Head Start has to get creative to find ways to serve more families, using money outside of its federal grants. Liffick said for the first time this year, they applied for funding from United Way and were able to provide 10 families on the waiting list with home-based services.
They also applied for grants from the Illinois State Board of Education that allow there to be two teachers and an assistant Head Start teacher in the classroom. Traditionally, Head Start programs have two teachers on staff, Moore said.
“In putting that money together … we meet more of the needs of families in our community,” Liffick said.
After kindergarten, the child is not Head Start’s responsibility, Moore said. However, he believes the taxpayers in the community can reap the benefits of Head Start. The program has been in the county for over 20 years, and around 10,000 students have gone through the program, Moore said.
Each year, he added, around 90 to 97 percent of children meet the standards that determine they are kindergarten ready. Liffick said that the best way to measure children’s progress, however, is looking at how an individual has improved throughout the year.
Moore believes long-term effects of the program include keeping children out of jail and off welfare in the future. Head Start is not a day care, he said — “this is a very structured environment where kids are being encouraged and helped to develop appropriately”.
Liffick said that Head Start is really a family development program.
“We’re building our community,” Liffick said. “And the stronger every child is, the stronger every family is, the stronger our community is.”