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Families served by Head Start in St. Mary’s next school year could be impacted by the automatic federal budget cuts put in place last week.

Eileene Zimmer, child and family services director for the local Head Start agency, said she is anticipating cuts to her budget after Congress could not come to an agreement last week to avoid sequestration.

Included in the $85 billion in federal funding cuts is as much as a $3 billion cut to education, including public school funding aimed at special education and low-income children.

The sequester also cuts $42.7 billion from the military budget, a 9.4 percent cut, which is expected to have a deep impact on work at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and its associated military contractors.

About 200 families in St. Mary’s rely on the educational opportunities offered by Head Start to preschool age children.

“It’s really important,” parent Denise Proctor said.

Her son, Deuan Herndon, is in his second year of the Head Start program located at the Jarboe Center in Lexington Park. He was born prematurely and has special needs that require extra care and attention, she said.

Proctor said her son did not speak much before he entered the program, but thanks to the staff, Deuan now “won’t stop talking,” just like other boys and girls.

“They’re incredible,” she said of the Jarboe Center Head Start staff. “They help with everything.”

Zimmer said Monday she had not heard of any specific amount that may be cut from her budget, but she did receive a letter that contained general program instructions based on sequestration from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The president is required to issue a sequestration order today, March 1, resulting in spending reductions of approximately 5 percent for the remainder of the federal fiscal year. We estimate that approximately 70,000 children will lose access to Head Start services because of this reduction,” the letter states.

The letter says that as a result of the cuts, all Head Start grants will be reduced by approximately 5 percent.

“We advise all grantees to begin planning how they will alter their programs to operate at the reduced levels,” the letter goes on to say.

Directors are advised to keep several principles in mind, including the priority of maintaining a high quality of service to children and their families. The letter also says that disruptions to currently enrolled children should be minimized, but that directors should expect enrollment reductions and workforce reductions next school year.

“There won’t be any change for families this program year,” Zimmer said. “There may be a reduction next year in the number of families served.”

Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee, a nonprofit agency that is funded through federal, state and local grants, oversees Head Start programs in St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles counties.

The tri-county group operates on a budget of $4.4 million from the federal government to provide services to about 600 children ages 3 and 4 at 12 locations in Southern Maryland, including four in St. Mary’s County.

Next school year, however, may not be insulated from the sequestration.

Zimmer said she expects if the local agency needs to make cuts, it will do so with the guidance of the national agency, and in a way that would directly impact families as little as possible.

According to information released last month by the White House, groups that work with Head Start could have to lay off more than 14,000 teachers and other staff.

Parent Brian Durant said he had not heard that the federal cuts related to sequestration could have an impact on Head Start services. His response to the potential cuts to Head Start staff — “I wouldn’t like that at all,” he said.

He said that the staff are qualified and care a lot about the young Head Start children.

Durant, who is the Jarboe Center’s Head Start PTA vice chair, said that his child, Justice, 4, seems well prepared for kindergarten next year thanks to the program.

“I feel like he’s learning,” Durant said.

About 93 percent of students coming from Head Start in St. Mary’s County last school year were deemed “fully ready” for kindergarten, according to the Maryland School Readiness Report, which is based on assessments and teacher observations given in kindergarten.

That is on par with the overall average in the county and equal to the percentage of students deemed ready coming out of St. Mary’s public schools’ prekindergarten classes. It is also several percentage points higher than children who only had home or informal care before kindergarten. Children in Head Start generally come from low-income families or require special education services.

jyeatman@somdnews.com