Four-year-old Ethan Garcia, wearing a striped shirt, a plastic red firefighter's helmet and a big smile, sat at a table at Columbia's Dasher Green Head Start Center one morning last week with teacher Tiffany Cook.

"OK, Ethan, we're going to find the letters in your name," Cook said. She pointed to a piece of paper with his first name on it. "Where's the 'E'?"

Ethan rummaged through a pile of colorful, plastic letters on the table, his smile growing even bigger when he found an "E."

"Good job!" said Cook. "Now, find 'T.' " She picked up a "B" and held it up. "Is that 'T'?" she asked.

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Ethan shook his head, rummaged through the pile again until he found a "T."

And so it went, until Ethan had lined up the five correct letters in his name, at which point Cook cried, "Good job! Give me five!" and the two exchanged a high five.

It's another day at Howard County's largest Head Start center, where 3- and 4-year-olds take part in a sometimes controversial, 48-year-old federal program, designed to help children from low-income families succeed in school, that has emerged as one of the most visible victims of federal budget sequestration.

Three months ago, 57,000 children across the country were dropped from Head Start programs as a result of sequestration cuts. Those cuts trickled down to Maryland, where 462 slots were eliminated, and Howard County, where the number of slots dropped from 264 to 252.

The county also eliminated one entire class and three positions, and cut five weeks of classes from its year-round program at the Tubman Center in Columbia.

Last month, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced he would use $4.1 million in state funds to make up for some of the cuts. While Head Start officials here welcomed the move, they said it came to late to avert the cuts in this year's program.

Nor did it do much to allay fears for the future. Another round of sequestration cuts — and another federal government shutdown — is possible early next year if Congress cannot agree on a budget, and Head Start officials nationwide are worried.

"Every Head Start program across the country is concerned about more cuts to funding," said Sally Aman, spokeswoman for the nonprofit National Head Start Association, which is organizing opposition to further cuts. "This was an absolutely devastating year for us.

"This is not the way invest in America's future. We need to put at-risk kids at the top of the leader board."

Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council of Howard County, which oversees the Head Start program here, said future funding levels are "a big unknown. We've seen the first step in the wrong direction."

Dayhoff said it is especially troubling that the cuts and uncertainty come "in the face of more need in Howard County." In the past two years, she said, the percentage of people living in poverty in Howard County has grown from 3.9 percent to 4.5 percent.

"The political controversy is disconcerting, especially when it compromises early childhood education and development for the most at-risk families," Dayhoff  said.

An enduring program

Head Start has had critics since it began in 1965, a Great Society initiative set up to help prepare children from low-income families for kindergarten.

In recent years, it has been a favorite target of federal deficit hawks, who question its effectiveness and say such programs should be left up to state and local governments.

A 2011 column by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, concluded that, "If there is one program that deserves to be on the chopping block, it is Head Start."