By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
President Bush’s signature on a five-year renewal of Head Start, the federal preschool program for children in poverty, drew sighs of relief Wednesday in eastern New Mexico.
“I was so excited. It was a long wait,” Eastern Plains Head Start Director Mary Rose Jimenez said.
The latest update to Head Start, which began in 1965, aims to open the program to more children and ensure that teachers are better-qualified. Congress overwhelmingly approved the legislation last month, and Bush signed it despite misgivings about aspects of the bill.
It was last authorized in 1998 and that authorization expired in 2003.
“I think it has been (a worry),” Jimenez said. “Head Start in this part of the state is a pretty major employer. Staff didn’t feel real comfortable not knowing.”
Jimenez said that the area she directs, which stretches from Clayton to Portales, experienced an across-the-board budget cut of 1 percent in 2006 as the lack of reauthorization lingered. She said that cut definitely had an effect on the services offered.
“We’re hoping now that the program has been approved that the funding will come through as well, she said.
Sen. Pete Domenici, in a press release, expressed hope that the appropriations bill that includes funding for Head Start — which was vetoed by Bush last month — can be rewritten and approved quickly.
Domenici expressed his overall support of the new bill that will expand Head Start in New Mexico.
“I believe this new law will improve Head Start and make it a more effective early education program,” Domenici said. “Implementing these changes will help more New Mexico children receive the support they need to excel in school.”
Bush praised the bill’s push to increase competition among Head Start providers, raise learning standards and coordinate early childhood education.
The legislation raises the eligibility ceiling from 100 percent of the poverty level for a family of four, about $20,650, to 130 percent, or $26,845, while giving priority to the neediest children.
“We see a lot of families on this side of the state that are very close to the poverty level, so this helps,” Jimenez said.
The bill also sets a deadline of 2013 for half of all Head Start classroom teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.
Jimenez said having better qualified staff will be a benefit, but she cautioned that funding needs to be in place for salaries to retain staff once they receive their degree.
Jimenez said her area is currently approved to serve 329 students in the preschool category and 70 in the infant and toddler program called Early Head Start. She expects the largest growth will likely be in Early Head Start.
“Our research shows that is still desperately needed in Roosevelt County,” she said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report