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Head Start's shortage of funds means it's unable to find teachers as students suffer

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Low-income families across the country are finding it difficult to get their children into early childhood education programs. Many of these families rely on Head Start, a federal program that offers services for free to children under the age of 5, but the program can't get enough teachers. WBUR's Emily Piper-Vallillo reports on the difficult decision that centers are making to try to keep classrooms open.

EMILY PIPER-VALLILLO, BYLINE: Erin Abreu enrolled her 11-month-old in Head Start in 2020.

ERIN ABREU: I was in a shelter. And I was currently working, but I needed help. I needed my daughter to be in a daycare.

PIPER-VALLILLO: A center in Boston accepted her daughter, Adalynn, into its program right away. Abreu was able to work longer hours once Adalynn was in child care. Now she's able to afford an apartment. Adalynn eats healthy meals at her Head Start program. She also receives dental care and spends her days learning numbers and words.

ABREU: She's so smart. Like, she hears - you know, they taught her - like, when it comes to books, she knows how to identify letters. She tells me how her day went in school. She's polite. She's respectful. Like, she's learned most of that here.

PIPER-VALLILLO: Abreu welcomed a second daughter last year, but this time her younger daughter was placed on the program's waitlist. She's still waiting nearly a year later. The problem is that low wages make it hard to recruit teachers. Head Start teachers make, on average, roughly $39,000 a year, or about 60% of what they could make teaching kindergarten in a public school. Tommy Sheridan is deputy director of the National Head Start Association. He says federal funding is not enough to cover rising operational costs like rent and competitive teacher pay.

TOMMY SHERIDAN: We have seen incremental increases over the last decade, but nothing getting us close to the degree that our staff need or, frankly, that they deserve.

PIPER-VALLILLO: So program directors across the country are resorting to a drastic step to keep centers open. They're closing classrooms and placing families on waitlists. A Head Start program in western Massachusetts permanently shut 2 of its 10 centers and reduced classroom seats in the remaining eight. Anat Weisenfreund is the program's director. She says now her agency has the flexibility to increase teacher salaries by more than 25%. Some salaries are as high as $58,000 a year.

ANAT WEISENFREUND: It's really incredible. We have filled almost all of our vacancies within six weeks. It's really very simple. You got to pay people a fair and decent wage.

PIPER-VALLILLO: Weisenfreund says the decision to close classrooms was hard but necessary.

WEISENFREUND: But it is directly on the backs of children and families by preventing access.

PIPER-VALLILLO: Head Start leaders know closing classrooms is not a permanent fix, but they don't anticipate an influx of federal dollars anytime soon. And they worry about centers being flagged as under enrolled, a status that puts them at risk of losing federal funds. So for now, a better solution remains out of reach.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER AND UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Big, big, big, big, small...

PIPER-VALLILLO: Back at the Head Start Center in Boston, Erin Abreu's 3-year-old daughter Adalynn sits on a fuzzy rug with her classmates. They practice some new words.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER AND UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Big, big, big, big, small, small, small. Ready?

PIPER-VALLILLO: But down the hall, there's a sign pinned to a door. It says classroom is closed. Adalynn won't lose her place in the program, but it's unclear when another space will open up for her sister and the other kids stuck on the waitlist. For NPR News, I'm Emily Piper-Vallillo in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emily Piper-Vallillo