Official focuses on kids at risk
As he joined preschoolers in singing "You Are My Sunshine," U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie drew an imaginary circle with his arms to describe the sun and pointed to his heart to symbolize the word "love."
The gestures, Abercrombie said, were meant to help children of immigrant parents in a Head Start class at Kaahumanu Elementary School follow the lyric.
"These kids all speak different languages. The cultural foundation of the children is highly differentiated," he said, noting that 29 languages are spoken at the public school campus. "So you have to have some common ground of understanding. ... It gets them singing in English, and it gets them used to it."
Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, visited the 16-student class yesterday to illustrate the challenges faced by Head Start in Hawaii as he pushes to raise the federal program's budget by $1 billion in fiscal year 2009.
The increase, he said, would dwarf President Bush's proposed hike of some $140 million to the nearly $7 billion program and help Head Start schools nationwide retain qualified workers and prepare more low-income children for their education.
In the 2006-07 academic year, Head Start programs in Hawaii for 3-to 5-year-olds received $18.7 million in federal funds. Early Head Start for children up to 2 years old was funded by $3.9 million in federal money.
But Abercrombie said low pay is causing teachers to leave Head Start for private preschools and the state Department of Education. An entry-level Head Start teacher with an associate degree earns $2,600 a month in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, parents whose salary exceeds income guidelines to qualify for Head Start can't afford private tuition, he said. To be eligible for Head Start, a family of four in Hawaii would need to make $24,380 or less.
Hawaii's Head Start programs serve about 3,000 children. The Oahu Head Start Program, with 80 sites and 300 workers, enrolls 1,650 students, but at least 4,894 families qualify because they get welfare and have children, said program manager Joni Ekimura.
She said federal Head Start funds have not kept pace with inflation.
The National Head Start Association estimates that more than three out of five Head Start program directors expect to lose good teachers and assistants unless government funding grows. And about half of Head Start programs say while wait lists have gone up, they lack funds to enroll more children.