Homer Head Start at risk for shutting down

Aug 2, 2019

Martha Wagele and Tessa Sullivan hold up signs outside of Homer Head Start.
Credit Renee Gross, KBBI News

Homer’s only Head Start program may shut down this fall.  On Wednesday, the program’s provider named the preschool as one of six across the state that will close if it does not receive state funding. Staff and families are both shocked and devastated. 

Roughly 20 people gathered outside of Homer Head Start Thursday for a planned rally to save the school. The building was decorated with brightly drawn signs and balloons and residents waved posters calling for support at the cars driving by.   

Janyce Larrick’s four-year-old attended preschool here last year. But she found out this week that she may not be able to enroll her son in the free program this upcoming fall.

“I'm very stressed out because it was a guarantee that my kid had a place to be, and I start school in just a couple of weeks,” she said. “So now I'm trying to find options,”

Larrick is looking for preschools that have openings and trying to figure out if she can afford them.

“I'm a full time student and a single mom,” she said.

Larrick says her son loves going to school here, and she feels good about his care. Now, she’s concerned about what this year might hold for her son if the program shuts down.

"The instability for my son if I'm relying on other people--that he's going to be at a different place all the time with different people and not having consistency which is important to children and having that schedule which a structured school gives,” she said.

Head Start provides early education, meals and other services for low-income children across the country. The state Legislature restored funding for the program last month after Gov. Mike Dunleavy eliminated it. But it again must survive the governor’s vetoes.

KBBI reached out to Dunleavy's office for a comment but did not hear back in time for this story. Dunleavy has stated repeatedly that cuts such as this one are critical for the state to obtain a balanced budget. 

Martha Wagele is the supervisor of Homer’s program and said it serves a vital niche in the community.

“We have children planning to enroll that are in foster care, children that are being raised by grandparents, teen parents, lots of at-risk situations, she said. "We're here to support them and provide a really quality early education, nutrition and socialization." 

Wagele has eight staff members and twenty kids aged three-five. The waitlist for the school is nearly as long as the number of students enrolled. 

She notified families this week with the news about the school’s future. 

“They're shocked, saddened, in disbelief and scrambling because there aren't many options in Homer,” she said. “The only other free program is the Title 1 program at Paul Banks, for four-year-olds that live in Homer, and a lot of families can't afford childcare.”

The program at Paul Banks currently has a waitlist but the Kenai Peninsula School District says that some spots usually open up throughout the year.

The Rural Alaska Community Action Program or RurAL CAP operates Homer’s Head Start along with roughly 20 others in the state. Kristin Ramstad is with RurAL CAP, and she said deciding which schools to shut down was a business decision: 

“Do we own or do we lease a building?” she said. “Are there other Rural CAP programs using that building? Is there supplemental funding for a Head Start program? Are there other early childhood services in the community and that sort of information.”

The elimination of state funding would also put federal money at risk. 

RurAL CAP says it is also prepared to close Head Start programs in Anchorage, Kake, Kluti Kaah, Sterling, and Tok if there’s no funding from the state.