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.
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."
Still, Head Start has proven to be an enduring program — one of the oldest anti-poverty programs in the country, popular with educators and the families it serves.
The county Head Start has served nearly 10,000 low-income families since 1965, and, until this year, had grown consistently. It has a waiting list of about 100 children.
"In Howard County, we've shown that when you have a strong partnership between the public school system and Head Start, children excel," Dayhoff said.
According to the State Department of Education, 83 percent of the Howard County Head Start children entering kindergarten this school year tested as "fully ready." That's slightly higher than the percentage for the public school system's pre-K program and up from 38 percent 11 years earlier.
Head Start works, its advocates say, because it is a holistic, integrated program that includes not only free classroom instruction and meals for the children but help for their families as well, with such services as home visits and referrals.
"I think that we offer a great quality program," said Anne Markson, director of programs and services for the Community Action Council. "Our statistics prove that. Our children are definitely benefiting from our program. Many of our children would be doing nothing if they weren't in Head Start."
With 108 students, Dasher Green is the county's largest Head Start site. Dasher Green students come not just from Columbia, but Elkridge and North Laurel as well; most arrive by bus.
Their day begins at 8:15 with breakfast. After that, they're in small classrooms participating in a variety of specific activities aimed at sharpening reading skills, motor skills, computer skills and more. Lunch is served at 11:35, and the children head home at 12:15.
"In that four hours, we try to get in as much education as possible," said Edward Shields III, center manager at Dasher Green. "What's special about Head Start is we get them at a very early age, at 3 or 4, so we get them at the beginning and can try to educate their minds to what school will be like. … So when they get to elementary school they're already prepared, with their numbers, their letters, their shapes."
Parents are among the program's biggest boosters.
"I love it," said Melissa Evans, of Columbia, who has two children at the Dasher Green center. "They come here for four hours each day and they're learning things all that time. I think it's really getting them ready for school. … I'd recommend this for any parent."
Evans, who works full-time, said the free transportation and meals are added bonuses.
"It's awesome," said Carrie Groves, of Elkridge, whose son, Jacob, is at Dasher Green.
If her son weren't in Head Start, she said, she'd have a hard time affording a similar program, so he'd be home with her.
"I'm not a teacher," she said. "I'd give him what I know, but not the way Miss Edwards (Mary Edwards, Jacob's main teacher) does. It definitely wouldn't be structured learning like this."
Groves said her daughter, now in kindergarten, attended last year, and the experience helped prepare her.
"After this, it wasn't a shock when she got to kindergarten. She kind of knew about rules."
Markson said such success stories are typical, often for entire families.
"The great majority of our families will say they see a great improvement in their children and an improvement in their own ability to access either social services systems or get themselves back to work, to get themselves back on track," she said.
Rather than shrink, Markson would like to see the county's Head Start program expand. Her wish list includes enrolling all of the children on the waiting list, offering six-hour-per-day programs to all Head Start children (now, just 72 of the county children get that much) and adding Early Head Start, a program for at-risk children from 1 to 3 years old.
Still, she is a realist.
"We are not being told of any more sequestration cuts, but of course, they sprang them on us pretty quickly the last time," Markson said. "There is controversy about the usefulness of Head Start. But we in Howard County certainly feel that for a little bit of money you get a lot of bang for your buck."