PITTSFIELD -- Sen. Benjamin Downing on Friday visited youngsters at Berkshire County Head Start, the early childhood program, and read the group Eric Carle's "The Tiny Seed" to promote literacy.
Downing later talked with students, including one who observed that the senator was "big Ben" and he was "little Ben."
Afterward, Downing recapped his visit via Twitter: "Visited Berkshire County Head Start to read to kids today. Always fun and sadly, sobering. Program cut by $134,000 by federal sequester."
Berkshire County Head Start Executive Director Eloise Stevens told Downing and confirmed to The Eagle on Friday that the federal sequester cuts have resulted in the closure of one of the five classrooms at the program's Johnson School site in North Adams. This impacts 18 children and two full-time staff members.
The Head Start, which prepares children for school, has seven locations in Berkshire County and operated on an approximately $2.4 million annual budget last fiscal year.
Though the affected staff members have been reassigned to other sites, parents of those 18 affected children in North Adams will have to find alternative programs in which to enroll their children. Stevens said their may be hope for some families since the North Adams Public Schools pre-kindergarten program is expected to relocate to the Johnson School site.
In addition, Berkshire County Head Start closed a week early at all its sites and will open a week later than usual in the fall to conserve funds. Stevens said managers and support at the administrative level will take 10 furlough days without pay. The budget for field trips has also been eliminated, and the program is looking for other ways to offer enrichment to students.
According to the National Head Start Association, sequestration began on March 1, causing across-the-board cuts for many areas of government spending, including "non-defense discretionary" spending which funds Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
The organization claims nationally, the reductions "will slam shut the window of opportunity for nearly 70,000 at-risk children."
Nationally, Head Starts were permitted to examine cutting hours of operation, the number of spots available in classrooms, and make staff reductions. They were not allowed, however to scale back actual services.
Pam Kuechler, executive director of Massachusetts Head Start, said collectively an estimated 1,581 children like "little Ben" will be displaced from Head Start classrooms, based on preliminary self-reported data from sites across the state.
"We're also looking at about 190 staff members that will lose jobs, which is a pretty substantial number too," Kuechler said, citing statewide data.
Downing said the federal cuts come during a legislative and election cycle during which both state Gov. Deval Patrick's administration and President Barack Obama have been advocating for universal pre-kindergarten and early childhood intervention programs.
"It's frustrating because you look around and clearly see a consensus about programs like these being a part of closing achievement gaps in early childhood education," Downing said.
Currently, early childhood organizations in Massachusetts, like Head Start, are waiting for the state budget to be finalized, which will hopefully mean more funds for early education.
"State funding will be a big help so we can maintain what we have," Stevens said.