Head Start overcomes

Published 8:39pm Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Tuesday morning, Jeff Zeigler was among officials with The Children’s Center attending an Early Head Start “transition ceremony” in Smithfield.

The center’s community relations coordinator was pleased that all six children are transitioning to Head Start.

“I think that’s great for the community and great for us,” Zeigler said that afternoon.

The center took over Head Start in Suffolk and Western Tidewater in September 2012. Previously, before another group’s temporary involvement, the federal program was operated locally by the Southeastern Tidewater Opportunity Project.

STOP had closed down the operations because of budget issues. The program helps children ages 3 to 5 from economically disadvantaged families prepare for school, also providing health, nutritional, social and other services.

“I think it’s been successful in the fact that we have been able to serve children and get them ready for kindergarten,” Zeigler said. “The challenges have been with federal funding.”

When the center was approved to run Head Start through 2017, it received $2.34 million for the first year, which Zeigler said funded 300 slots across a service area encompassing Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight and Southampton.

“We also at the time had 256 Early Head Start kids, too,” he said.

Things progressed well until March 2013, Zeigler recalled, when the center learned it was going to be hit by sequestration.

Gridlock in Washington cost the Children’s Center about $250,000, resulting in reductions of 28 Head Start and 18 Early Head Start slots.

“What that meant for Suffolk was we closed a classroom at the Suffolk Head Start building,” Zeigler said. “From 10 (classrooms), we are down to nine for this year.”

But it proved a momentary setback. With the funding restored in July, slots were restored and classrooms set to reopen.

“That was our budget challenge,” Zeigler said, adding that officials at the center were unhappy about having to scale back the programs. “That’s just less children that you are going to be able to reach.”

Sometimes those children who miss out on Head Start can get into the school district’s pre-kindergarten program, and sometimes they can’t, he said.

“They need that exposure to other children; they need that exposure to reading and math skills,” according to Zeigler.

Zeigler said he thinks the community appreciates that the center was able to rescue Head Start and prevent children from falling through the cracks. He also believes there’s a level of appreciation that it’s now run by an outfit based in Western Tidewater, with its roots here.

“I think they wanted the Western Tidewater area to kind of have its own (Head Start) identity, so to speak,” Zeigler said.

“I think having local control of Head Start will help the quality of the program.”

Asked how sure he is that budget issues won’t emerge again, Zeigler said that the center’s finance department is adept at running programs in accordance with federal guidelines.

“We already had Early Head Start, and also have an early intervention program that has a lot of rules,” he said. “We are rule-followers to a ‘T.’”

The center will reapply to run the program once the current term is up, he said, adding it’s a good fit, because they already had the early program.

“There’s a good possibility we will have children all the way through from birth to when they start kindergarten,” Zeigler said.

“That’s one thing we are really interested in — that continuity.”

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