SEWELL: Fighting for Head Start in the Black Belt

Published 7:26 pm Saturday, July 22, 2017

By REP. TERRI SEWELL | U.S. Representative 

As Representative of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, there are few issues I take more seriously than child care and public education in the Black Belt. I serve in Congress because when I was young, my school teachers invested time in me and our school system in Selma had the resources I needed to learn and grow. As I travel across the Black Belt today, the teachers I meet show the same dedication and passion, and it would break my heart to see our students get anything less.

That’s why I’ve made it a top priority to win back Head Start funding for pre-schools in our area.

Email newsletter signup

Whether I’m visiting Edgewood Head Start Center or Southside Primary Child Development Center, I meet toddlers who love being at school and learning. They are full of promise and their teachers rise every day to teach and nurture these little children. I walk away from those centers with a heightened sense of responsibility to protect the vital services and programs that they and their families rely on.

But in Choctaw, Dallas, Marengo, and Wilcox Counties, full funding for early education programs is at risk.

These four counties are managed under the same grant from the Office of Head Start. In 2015, the local grantee that managed Head Start services in these four counties for many years lost the grant through a competitive process. In its place, the Office of Head Start brought in an agency out of Colorado to operate the 11 centers in the service area.

When I was first notified about the loss of Head Start funding to an out-of-state organization, I expressed concerns with the Office of Head Start about the loss of local control and worked with local leaders to regain control over early education in our area. I invited and hosted the National Director of Head Start for a meeting with all of the Head Start directors in the 7th District to discuss child care needs in the Black Belt and the importance of local control. I was inspired by all of our local directors and I took them on a tour of the Head Start service area in Choctaw, Dallas, Marengo, and Wilcox Counties.

Because of these efforts, and because of the hard work of local leaders like Felecia Lucky with the Black Belt Community Foundation and Lena Hardaway with Sumter County Opportunity, we won back local control over Head Start grants this year and for the first time we have access to Early Head Start funding. The Black Belt Community Foundation will be managing Head Start services (Ages 3-5) and Sumter County Opportunity will be managing Early Head Start services (Ages 0-3) beginning in August.

The addition of Early Head Start services for families with children ages 0-3 is important. Studies show that children born into low-income families hear roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. The “word gap” leads to disparities in school readiness, long-term educational and health outcomes, earnings, and family stability. Research also shows that providing children from birth to five with language-rich activities, like reading, singing, and talking, leads to better lifelong outcomes.

I am delighted about the addition of Early Head Start services and thrilled that the overall Head Start grant has increased and will be provided through a local organization. Unfortunately, the grant, while larger, is now split between Early Head Start and Head Start so there will be a reduction in resources for the Head Start slots.

Consequently, the Black Belt Community Foundation is making difficult decisions to close certain centers across the service area for children ages 3-5. My office is currently working with the Office of Head Start, other Members of Congress, and the Black Belt Community Foundation and Sumter County Opportunity to remedy this situation so that services will not be denied for eligible children and their families. We have successfully included report language in the FY2018 Appropriations bill expressing concerns about Head Start closures and the consequences they have on the ability of children and families to access services.

Especially in rural districts like ours, an additional 15-20 miles can be the difference between a child accessing Head Start and not. These transportation barriers can lead to increased absenteeism and missed work for families. I know that if the Office of Head Start had more funding allocated from Congress, they would not have to split the grant. Securing additional funding through the appropriations process is a priority of mine. I am working with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to increase funding for Head Start so that we can have slots for all eligible Early Head Start and Head Start kids.

The Black Belt we want, the Alabama we want, and the America we want is dependent on the investments we make in our children today.  I encourage all of my constituents to volunteer their time and energy into our children and support the Black Belt Community Foundation and Sumter County Opportunity as they take on the responsibility of providing Head Start services in our service area. Making limited resources stretch to meet the vast array of needs these children and families have is a daunting task.

And here’s my promise to constituents – I will fight for early learners and their teachers with every breath that I have. There is nothing more important to me than seeing our children learn and grow, and that growth depends on opportunities like Head Start. I’m a strong believer that it takes a village to raise a child. Choctaw, Dallas, Marengo, and Wilcox Counties are my village. The Black Belt’s children are my children, and I will not rest until I know that each of our kids have the educational opportunities they deserve.

Thank you to the families and the teachers who have talked with my office about Head Start funding, and as I continue work on this issue, I will keep you up-to-date with developments.