Sequester Threatens Ladybug Lessons for L.A. 4-Year-Olds

Far from the halls of Congress and the debate over “sequestration,” Rafael Folgar flaps his arms to mimic a flying ladybug to teach 4-year-olds about colors and numbers in a partially abandoned shopping center near Los Angeles International Airport.

If $85 billion in automatic federal spending reductions take effect March 1, some pupils in Folgar’s Head Start class at Hawthorne Plaza could lose four hours of instruction and two free meals a day, according to the foundation that runs the program.

The cuts would strip about 8.2 percent of funding for children and family services such as Head Start, started in 1965 to help prepare low-income preschoolers for kindergarten, according to the National Head Start Association.

“This would just kill my spirit because Head Start has been my passion,” said Elaine Atlow, executive director of the Training and Research Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Folgar’s school and 16 others in Los Angeles County. “This would be a major impact for us. We serve over 2,000 children. They meet the income criteria, so they’re categorically poor. The most critical part is, what happens to these babies?”

About 24,000 children ages 3 to 5 in the nation’s most-populous county are enrolled in Head Start, said Kostas Kalaitzidis, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Education Office, which doles out federal aid to groups such as Atlow’s Inglewood-based foundation.

Fewer Children

The program stands to lose $15.8 million, according to a letter from Keesha Woods, the county’s Head Start director, to Atlow and other nonprofit leaders. That equates to reducing enrollment by about 2,000 children, according to figures provided by Filemon Santos, the foundation’s chief financial officer.

Investors haven’t acted like they see a crisis. The extra yield bondholders demand for owning California state and local debt was 55 basis points yesterday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The difference had declined from 78 basis points in January, to the lowest in three months.

The Hawthorne center, known simply as Site 42, teaches about 140 children and has a waiting list of 48, said Faye Bell, the site director. Hawthorne, a city about five miles (eight kilometers) southeast of the airport, had a median household income of $45,622 in 2011, about 26 percent less than the California median, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Parents dropping off their children on Feb. 25 spoke of the benefits of Head Start and expressed dismay that automatic budget reductions could harm the program unless President Barack Obama and Congress agree on an alternative.

Angie Garcia, 22, said her 5-year-old, Jonathan, wouldn’t be as ready for kindergarten without the two years of preparation he has received.

‘Completely Lost’

“He’d be completely lost,” said Garcia, a stay-at-home mother. “He already knows his ABC’s, his colors, everything.”

All four of Alvaro Mendoza’s children have gone to the Head Start program in South Los Angeles, one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Mendoza, a 33-year-old valet, said the children gained “confidence and independence” through the program.

“It’s been difficult to find any resource that’s free and available in the community,” Mendoza said. “This is going to be devastating for some.”

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