JOHNSTOWN - Area Head Start programs have dropped to the back of the class after budget shortfalls forced a series of temporary closures in April and May.
The Cambria County Head Start program was forced to temporarily shut down its five locations on alternating schedules starting in April as funding for the programs ran tight toward the end of the school year, program director Stacie M. Horvath said.
"A lot of parents don't understand that we're doing the best we can," Horvath said of the closures.
In a letter addressed to Head Start families in early March, Horvath cited a variety of problems that caused the temporary closures: a lack of funding, budget freezes and cuts, flat-funding, and increasing inflationary costs.
The Head Start program is a federally-funded program under the Community Action Partnership of Cambria County that provides "school readiness" as well as mental and behavioral health services for 3- to 5-year-old children.
Families living below the poverty level are eligible to enroll in the program, Horvath said.
But Head Start is not a mandatory program, and officials are worried continued budget problems could cause increased problems before the next school year.
The centers closed every other week in groups to ensure the program continued to meet the minimum attendance requirements set forth by their grant structuring needs, she said.
The Johnstown and Gallitzin locations were closed this week, and the center's locations at Northern Cambria, Admiral Peary Vo-Tech School and Salix will be closed from Monday through Friday.
"We will continue to offer these services to the kids," Horvath said.
"We just need to find creative ways to get the people out there and talk to their legislatures," to secure additional funding, she added.
But the fight to secure increased funding for educational services is not new,
"The money we put into early education is really helpful," state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said.
Under Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, the focus on early education allowed children to become better students, but the current administration is "dismantling" that work, Haluska said.
"It really upsets me," Haluska said. "Instead of cutting business taxes, we should be taking care of bettering education."
Low-income families tend to be overlooked, Horvath said.
But those people are the ones that rely on the Head Start program for more than just education: the services provide dental services, mental and behavioral health services, and the simple fact that the centers provide a type of day care service so parents can work or find employment.
The Head Start program is an invaluable community resource, Horvath said.
Officials from the state-wide Head Start programs, including Horvath, met in Harrisburg this week to discuss their budgets and operations at the county level.
Despite the shortcomings of this year's program, officials are still taking applications for the 2012-13 school year and need to keep their enrollment rosters high despite any potential problems, Horvath said.
"The amount of money we have to do non-personnel issues, it just caught up to us," Horvath said. "This is the first year I can honestly say this has devastated us."