Head Start preschool programs in Allegheny County face large cutbacks

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At least 420 fewer children will be in public early childhood programs in Allegheny County this fall, part of the fallout from the state budget impasse in Harrisburg.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit Friday notified 300 families that their children's Head Start or Pre-K Counts classrooms will be closed because of a lack of state funding.

This amounts to half of the 600 children served by the AIU in state-funded Head Start and Pre-K Counts programs. Those that do operate will start a week late on Sept. 8.

The change also will result in the loss of up to 39 jobs.

Pittsburgh Public Schools plans not to fill about 120 preschool slots at six locations by discontinuing enrollment and recruiting for preschool programs beginning Sept. 4. The district also is not filling 14 jobs.

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, called the cuts "devastating" for families.

Lisa Fischetti, chief of staff in the Pittsburgh district, said the reduced number is "disappointing," but without adequate state funding, she said, the district couldn't afford to pay for the 120 slots.

In recent years, early childhood programs across the state have seen significant growth as Gov. Ed Rendell fought for and won additional support for early childhood education.

Now, however, some state budget proposals call for cutting the state early childhood money in half.

According to the state Department of Education, more than half of those receiving state Pre-K Counts money statewide said they would not be opening classrooms on time as of Aug. 7, affecting 4,700 children and 514 employees.

The department also said that In addition, more than half of those who receive state money for Head Start also planned to close classrooms and lay off staff, affecting 2,140 children and 254 employees, as of Aug. 11.

Dr. Hippert said the AIU offers three preschool programs: Head Start funded by the federal government; Head Start funded by the state government; and Pre-K Counts, which also relies on state money.

The federal Head Start program is unaffected by the state budget debate. There are 1,339 in federally funded programs operated by the AIU.

The reductions at the AIU will save nearly $2.3 million and affect 16 locations.

Pittsburgh had about 2,000 students in early childhood programs last school year, district officials said.

The AIU will host a forum at 7 p.m. Thursday at its headquarters at the Waterfront to discuss the state budget issue.

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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