OCO Education Services feels impact of federal sequestration

For hundreds of low-income families in Oswego County, the dream of having their children begin their school years as well prepared as their peers has ended.

Federal Sequestration, which many first heard months ago, has affected Oswego County Opportunities’ Education Services.

For decades OCO’s Head Start program in Pulaski has prepared youth ages 3 and 4 to begin school ready to succeed. This fall, however, there will be no Head Start program in Pulaski.

Federal Sequestration has resulted in a $118,403.00 cut to Head Start locally. Due to the loss of these funds, the Head Start program will no longer be available in the Pulaski School District.

The Cleveland Head Start, which serves the Central Square School District, has been forced to eliminate one of its two classes.

Additionally, these cuts have a domino affect that goes well beyond the loss of vital services to low-income children and their families.

The loss of three teachers, the reduction of hours to 11 other staff members, and the loss of an administrative position will directly affect the local economy as well, according to OCO Director of Education Services Beth Kazel.

“Reliable studies have found that the positive long-term effects of Head Start result in lower rates of grade repetition and special education placement, as well as increased high school graduation rates for Head Start graduates,” said Kazel. “Additionally, Head Start children are significantly more likely to attend college than their siblings who did not attend Head Start.”

Head Start does much more than prepare children to begin their school career, she noted. It helps parents work with their children and strengthen their parenting skills as well.

It also provides comprehensive services, including a registered dietician who plans healthy, nutritious menus and offers nutrition counseling to parents; family services staff who advocate for, and work directly with, parents; mental health consultants who observe Head Start children and work with parents and teachers on issues such as child behavior; and nurses who connect with parents and staff on children’s health needs such as dental exams and other health issues.

“Head Start provides a healthy and a safe learning environment where children learn through play,” said teacher and Pulaski Head Start Center Director Sue Austin. “We also assist families with everything from getting enrolled in GED programs, to enrolling in college, finding jobs, and other referrals for success in their communities.  Head Start provides opportunities for parents to become involved in their child’s education in a positive and supportive setting.

“I have seen firsthand how former Head Start students are thriving in the public school system,” she added. “Over the years, we have welcomed back former students to volunteer and read to our class.  It has been amazing to see their growth as students, both academically and personally.

“We not only help the students academically but also socially and emotionally,” she continued. “Over the past nine years more than 180 families in the Pulaski school district have been given a head start on their education.  We will sincerely miss the children and the families that we have had the pleasure to come to know. Our only hope is that we have made a difference in their lives as much as they have made in ours.”

Robin France has had two sons go through the Head Start program and has had the opportunity to experience Head Start as a mother and as a teacher.

Her connection with Head Start inspired her to continue her education and pursue her goal of teaching. France, who holds a BA in early childhood and a master’s in special education, is saddened by the affect Federal Sequestration is having on Head Start.

“It’s very hard to put your feelings into words when your heart is involved,” she said. “This isn’t a job; it’s what I am and what I do. To come in each day and have a child say ‘good morning’ and give you a hug; to see the ‘Aha!’ moment in their eyes and the wondrous expressions when they discover they could do it by themselves; to see them interact and problem solve with peers is priceless.”

While the cuts to the Head Start program affect three- and four-year-olds preparing for school, the complete elimination of the Rural After School Program will affect middle and high school age students in three Oswego County school districts.

The Rural After School Program served approximately 600 students in the APW, Hannibal, and Fulton school districts.

While not directly a result of the Federal Sequestration, OCO’s RASP and several other RASP programs in the state lost their funding when the annual request to renew the grant funding was denied.

OCO’s RASP was available every day and offered students a more social setting than the school day, allowing them to build healthy relationships with other students and adults.

Students were engaged in a number of educational, recreational and enrichment activities, as well as community service activities that allowed them to give back to, and feel connected to, their community in a positive way.

Research has shown that students involved in After School Programs do better both academically and socially as they achieve higher grades, better attendance records, and experience overall educational success.

RASP provided youth with a number of groups and activities, including: Social Support and Community Service Groups; Youth Issues Groups that address violence prevention, pregnancy prevention education, and substance use prevention; Life Skills Training; Recreation Activities; Tutoring; and Enrichment Activities.

Staffed by youth specialists, peer specialists, and academic staff members, RASP provided youth in rural areas with a productive way to fill their after school time.

Diane Cooper-Currier, executive director of OCO, said that while these cuts hurt, they in no way reflect on the quality or value of the programs or the employees who rendered these services.

“The services provided by these programs and staff were of the highest caliber,” she said. “The decrease or elimination of these programs is a reflection of the challenging fiscal times we’re currently facing. Regardless of the challenges we face, our mission remains the same. OCO continues helping people, supporting communities, and changing lives.”

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