For more than 50 years, the Head Start program has provided critical early-learning intervention services to millions of children and their families across the country, including thousands here in Clark County.
Beyond education, the program helps at-risk, low-income families with housing resources, meals and more.
In recent years, however, rising inflation and repeated closures and interruptions amid the COVID-19 pandemic have forced program organizers to close six classrooms in the Vancouver area — severely limiting their ability to serve those in the community who may need it most.
“We’re facing an incredible workforce challenge. We just don’t have the resources to pay people fair wages,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. “It’s not that there’s not a wait list or not enough interest; they just don’t have staff.”
Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start and related programs’ implementation in Southwest Washington, estimates it has the capacity to serve 1,100 children in 41 classrooms across Clark, Cowlitz and Pacific counties.
Due to the closure of the six classrooms, where children spent their days with education specialists and social workers, the office estimates that there are 159 children in the Vancouver area not receiving Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program services they had signed up for. This doesn’t serve as an accurate estimate, an Educational Opportunities for Children and Families official said, for all the children who may still need and benefit from the services.
“Child care for the most part is about having a safe and warm environment for your kid,” Ryan said. “But Head Start is really an intervention program to make sure they get out on the right foot. You have to look at it like a multi-generational program.”
A study from the Brookings Institute showed that the program, in its full implementation, increases students’ likelihood of graduating from high school and college. It also showed that female students were 32 percent less likely to live in poverty as adults and male students saw a 42 percent decrease in the need for public welfare assistance.
Rekah Strong, the CEO at Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, is calling for federal action to keep the programs alive. She said their annual funding has barely flinched in the last five years, despite skyrocketing inflation.
“If someone were to do a cost analysis with inflation, we have been getting the same dollar amount in the last five years, and there are no adjustments or even minor adjustments to counterbalance inflation,” Strong said. “Everything that comes into our doors goes right back out into the community.”
A worsening issue
With a lack of applicants for open positions, Educational Opportunities for Children and Families said, approximately 45 percent of its classrooms locally have just the minimum staffing ratio. Since Jan. 1, 33 employees have left the agency; 70 percent of them said they left for a position with better pay and benefits.
For the classrooms that have stayed open, health restrictions due to COVID-19 have forced intermittent closures and further limitations of in-person services. Even now, when COVID-19 isn’t spreading anywhere near the rate at which it was earlier this year, Educational Opportunities for Children and Families said it was forced to close 19 classrooms for a day between May 2 and May 13 due to staff shortages.
“I’m a mother; it’s heartbreaking to see,” Strong said. “The amount of work they’re putting in is not reflected in their pay and benefits.”
Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program served more than a million children across the country, including 17,000 here in Washington, before the pandemic. Since 2019, that number has dwindled statewide to just 12,000.
Strong estimates there are as many as 4,000 students in Clark, Cowlitz and Pacific counties who qualify for services but can’t be reached due to the limited scope of what the office can provide. In both Evergreen Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools, for example, a majority of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Head Start representatives and supporters are now working in Washington, D.C., where U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is leading a charge to secure the inclusion of a recently changed child care proposal in an upcoming Senate reconciliation package.
Were the package to pass as it stands, an estimated $12 billion would be directed to the Head Start program to improve wages for teachers over a six-year span. Democratic lawmakers will continue to grapple with convincing Republican senators and swing votes, such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, in the coming weeks.
“There are children and families in this community who heavily rely on these services,” Strong said. “Early learning is a linchpin to getting society back on track.”