By Angie Orenstein
The Head Start program in Billerica will close its doors at the end of this school year due to sequestration. Congressman John Tierney and directors from Community Teamwork, Inc. spoke to concerned parents and community members about the closing Monday morning.
"In my estimation the whole sequestration issue is nothing short of legislative malpractice. This was something that didn't have to happen," said Tierney. "Just in Massachusetts 1,100 children will lose their critical early learning programs, which generally means the parent will be out of work. In the end we're losing. We're going backward."
The closing is a result of the government's sequestration, which involves budget cuts to particular categories of federal spending.
Community Teamwork's Head Start program, servicing about 700 children in the Greater Lowell area, has received a 5.27 percent cut, or approximately $350,000. This has resulted in the closure of three classrooms at the end of this school year, including the one in Billerica, which has 16 children and two teachers. The program has been in operation for more than 30 years.
In the lecture hall at Billerica Memorial High School Monday, the impact of the situation was driven home not only by compelling words but also by a visual display of 85 seats in the hall that were marked with orange flags, signifying the number of children and families who are being affected.
"It's not like a heart attack. The world doesn't come to a grinding halt all of a sudden. It's more like heart disease. It starts, it ripples, and it gets worse every year we don't do something about it," Tierney said. "And I think for all these 85 kids over here that's a heart attack and for their parents that's a heart attack. For those teachers that are losing their jobs it's a heart attack for them, their families, and the community that relies on them."
"We can do something about it in Congress if we pass a sensible budget," he added. "We have to make smart cuts and this is not a smart cut."
Head Start, a program that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families is not part of the Billerica Public School system. It is a federally funded program operating under Community Teamwork, Inc., headquartered in Lowell, which has been renting classroom space in Billerica Memorial High School. As a satellite classroom it serves not only Billerica but also surrounding communities such as Burlington, Bedford, Wilmington, and Chelmsford.
Head Start students range in age from 2.9 to 5 years old. Eleven of the 16 children will be moving on to kindergarten in the fall and the remaining five who would have continued with the program have been offered slots at the larger Head Start center in Lowell, but will not be provided with transportation.
"There are some efficiencies in having classrooms together quite honestly. It's a little bit less expensive," said Karen Frederick, executive director at Community Teamwork. "So you have to look at where you can reasonably cut and make the best decision you can. Wherever we cut, it hurts. Wherever we make the decision, it hurts and this is painful. The decision has been made and unfortunately this is one of the places we have to reduce."
Both teachers - Maria Francione, lead teacher who has been in the Billerica classroom for 10 years and with Community Teamwork for 22 years, and Debby O'Leary, assistant teacher who has been in Billerica for eight years and with Community Teamwork for 16 years - will be transferred to other Head Start classrooms, but they are not sure where yet.
"Unfortunately it's a decision we have to make," said Chris Hunt, youth services coordinator for Community Teamwork. "Our mission is to bring these children forward. It's about their moral health. Making sure they are seeing a dentist. It's about getting them glasses so that they can see, so they can learn. Sometimes it's about getting them food so they're fed and nourished. These are the things we do in Head Start. It's not just about education. It's so much more."
Frederick said the mission of Community Teamwork is to help people find a pathway to self-sufficiency in many ways through several different types of programs such as fuel assistance, Section 8 housing, and Head Start - all of which have felt the sting of the sequester.
Community Teamwork serves about 50,000 people each year and employs about 430 staff members. Their goal is to help people become and remain self-sufficient and to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.