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Spending cuts taking hard toll on Head Start

Laramii Wright (left) and Aneka Smith have children in a Head Start program in Boston, but are concerned about the effects of budget cuts on the program.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Laramii Wright (left) and Aneka Smith have children in a Head Start program in Boston, but are concerned about the effects of budget cuts on the program.

When the school year resumes this fall, at least 1,359 Massachusetts children — 259 more than earlier estimated — will probably not be in Head Start classrooms because of automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts.

The cuts, the legacy of so-called sequestration in Washington, will have a bigger impact than the federal government originally estimated, with slots for the preschoolers disappearing statewide, classrooms closing, jobs lost, and the school year ending early in some communities, officials say.

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“You’re going to see seats empty in September,” said Pam Kuechler, executive director of the Massachusetts Head Start Association. “It’s really going to be hurtful to kids.”

The association polled the state’s Head Start providers, and Kuechler said as of last week, 21 of the 29 providers said they anticipate eliminating a total of 1,359 slots for children next year, about 20 percent higher than federal figures released in February predicting a loss of 1,100 Head Start and Early Head Start seats for Massachusetts.

In addition, about 120 jobs will be eliminated in Head Start centers statewide, Kuechler said.

In other cost-cutting measures, some programs also plan to start the school year late, while others will no longer provide transportation for the preschoolers.

Programs must submit proposals for ways to achieve the mandated cuts to the federal government by Saturday.

Head Start is a federal grant program designed to give 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families a jump start on their education by intervening at a time in their lives when academic disparities begin to emerge. Early Head Start, which is a component of Head Start, serves pregnant women, infants, and toddlers.

Started in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, Head Start aims to address the social, emotional, and academic needs of more than a million children in classrooms nationwide as well as aid their families. Students learn ABCs, numbers, and science basics, most notably, in one Jamaica Plain classroom, about caterpillars.

Head Start is one of a broad range of programs, such as those that provide housing for the poor and shelter for the homeless, that are beginning to suffer from the impact of sequestration, the term applied to sweeping federal spending cuts intentionally forged to be so dire that they would force Washington lawmakers to reach a compromise on reducing the nation’s deficit.

The compromise never happened, however, and the cuts, designed to last a decade, automatically took effect in March. As a result, Head Start providers across the country were ordered to slice 5 percent from their budgets.

“The sequester is the most mindless and unconscionable thing I’ve seen them do in a long, long time,” said John Drew, president of Action For Boston Community Development, which administers the city’s Head Start program.

The country, he said, “should be taking care of its most vulnerable citizens.”

In Boston, about 200, or about 10 percent, of the seats in Head Start classrooms will be empty next year because of the reduction in federal funds. Between 60 to 70 staff members are expected to lose their jobs as well, said program director Yvette Rodriguez.

Laramii Wright, 23, was confident that her 2-year-old son would go to the Head Start center in Jamaica Plain in September, when he turns 3. That center is where his older brother and sister learned to tie their shoes and write their names in English and Spanish.

But Wright was shaken when she learned at a recent meeting for parents that the budget cuts mean fewer children will be accepted in the fall, and she has no guarantee that her son will have a spot.

She worries that she will not be able to return to cosmetology school for lack of reliable child care, and that her son, who attends a home day-care program, will not be ready for kindergarten because she cannot afford private preschool.

“Children deserve to be in classroom setting at all times with children of a similar age instead of at a home with 5-year-olds, 3-year-olds, and 1-year-olds,” she said.

In Massachusetts, Head Start and Early Head Start provides about 16,000 preschoolers — 2, 500 in Boston — with a full day of learning in classrooms, and dental, vision, and nutrition services at no cost to families whose annual household incomes fall within federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that’s $23,050 per year.

Nationally, the sequester’s 5 percent cut from Head Start’s $8.1 billion budget means 70,000 slots for children must be eliminated in order to achieve the necessary savings, according to initial estimates from the White House.

Like the state association, the federal government is polling providers to find out how they are achieving the sequester-mandated cuts.

“What we’re seeing now is that programs are doing a variety of things to save that 5 percent,” said Kenneth J. Wolfe, spokesman for the administration for children and families in the US Department of Health and Human Services. “Some are ending the school year early. Some are going to delay the opening of next school year. Some are cutting back on transportations. Those are what programs are doing instead of slot reductions, not with slot reductions.”

Massachusetts is cutting slots for children and eliminating services and staff to reach the mandated savings, while some other states are doing one or the other but not both, according to federal authorities.

But when the states’ proposals for cuts are submitted, it may turn out that others might have to join Massachusetts in the need to both cut student slots and jobs and services.

Stephen Day’s youngest is only an infant, but already he is panicking at the possibility the child may not be able to attend the Head Start center in Jamaica Plain, like her three older brothers did. Day said he has more trust in the center, where he serves as a volunteer, than he would a private day care.

“They put effort in to trying to help our kids out,” Day said, “to give them a better future.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.

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