On a recent Thursday morning, Antoinetta Lassiter is playing with roller skates she has just gotten for her fifth birthday. She’s in her Beechview home with her mother and grandmother, asking an endless stream of questions.
Her mother Melinda Lassiter said it's nice to have her home, but if things had gone as planned, her daughter would still be enrolled in her Head Start program.
"I went to pick her up from school, and the teacher told us the school was closing on the 19th of April … and that was kind of shocking actually," she said.
The program Antoinetta attended was at the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Association in Overbrook. But because of automatic federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, the program had to end its school year about a month early — leaving Antoinetta and 580 of her young peers without a daytime activity. It's also forced their parents to scramble for a quick solution and left more than 100 of the center's Head Start employees without work.
"There is a lot of collateral damage involved with sequestration," said Susan Buffton, director of early childhood education programs at the center.
Sequestration went into effect in March. The cuts were put in place in 2011 as part of a deal to raise the country’s debt ceiling. They were intended to push lawmakers toward making a long-term deal to address the budget deficit, but that never materialized.
Now these cuts affect a range of federal programs. Among them is Head Start, a school readiness and health program that serves 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income families. It's facing a 5.27 percent cut.
Head Start programs are grant funded, meaning institutions that run Head Starts operate on different fiscal years. The Three Rivers Council of The American Indians Program started in October, which Buffton said left them with few options.
"Understanding that you cannot retroactively close down a classroom or make staff decisions, we were forced to make the decision to actually close our classrooms early this year to accommodate the 5 percent cut during this fiscal year," she said.
Depending on when their grant years start, other programs have had to make similar decisions. Buffton said that besides the general inconvenience, this sudden shuttering has an adverse effect on the development of the children who had been in the program and receive nutritional support, mental health and disability services.
"They are losing the opportunity to learn new skills and to participate in the nutrition program and mental health program," Buffton said.
Many of those children are scheduled to enter school in the fall.
"Unfortunately, closing the classrooms down probably impacted the 290 children scheduled to go to kindergarten this fall most intensely because what we are doing at that point is working with families around transitioning into kindergarten," Buffton said. "We’re working with the children to assess their skills. We want to assist them so they are as ready as they can be to enter the kindergarten classroom and be successful learners."
Melinda Lassiter said she sees the benefits of Head Start for her daughter, who had been enrolled, versus her son who entered kindergarten without attending Head Start. He didn't know his alphabet or how to write his name.
Those differences aren’t just anecdotal.
Heather Bachman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education, said since Head Start was formed in the 1960s, research has shown its benefits repeatedly.
"In the short term, we do see a lot of health improvements for children and a lot of social, behavioral and cognitive gains as well," she said.
Bachman added there are long-term benefits such as greater educational attainment and less engagement in crime and delinquency.
While some studies claim there is a “fade-out” effect to Head Start, where the skills attained are lost by third grade, the methodologies for those studies aren’t considered rigorous.
Head Start is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. The program serves about 4,000 across Pennsylvania, and the federal government contributes $456 million to Head Start programs statewide.
The commonwealth also contributes money, although that money has been steadily decreasing. At the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Association, the state- and federally funded classrooms are kept separate. The state classrooms are still in session.
Head Start also provides early intervention services for children with special needs and helps children find a medical and dental home. The children with special needs can get speech or cognitive therapy at other centers, but that comes with its own set of challenges.
Many parents, such as Melissa Rubolini, have had to change their work schedules and spend more time at home to watch their children.
Melissa Rubolini’s 5-year-old son had been receiving speech therapy at the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Association. Now, he’s been transferred into another program one day a week for help with his speech and hearing.
"There's nothing you can do about it," she said. "They sent letters home and said they were going to rally and stuff, but I have kids and I really can't go to too many places and do stuff."
Blair Hyatt, director of the Pennsylvania Head Start Association, said because Head Start programs already operate on small budgets, these cuts are devastating.
"It means that there is no extra, there is no fat left in any of their budgets," he said. "It's very difficult to absorb small cuts in Head Start because the model for the programs usually involve having a certain number of children to make up a classroom that supports a teacher and two health coordinators."
Hyatt said some of the programs are weighing other options to make ends meet, such as pulling health insurance benefits for employees. At the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Association, they will have three fewer classrooms and will possibly cut bus service.
He said the effects of these cuts will be felt for a long time.
"The impression originally was that the sequester was like the fiscal cliff, and all of the sudden some big disaster was going to happen," Hyatt said. "The sequester in how it's going to play out is really serious, but it's not a cliff. It’s a long, slowly implemented impact."