COLUMBIA — State Reps. Mike Bernskoetter and Chris Kelly walked into an early childhood classroom at Park Avenue Head Start on Monday morning and met a boy slightly taller than their knees. Taking a break from an activity, the little guy stared up at them.
"Hi, what’s your name?" Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, said.
Kelly, D-Columbia, took the opportunity to tease his colleague. "You’re the oldest person he’s ever seen," Kelly told Bernskoetter.
The two toured Park Avenue Head Start at the invitation of early childhood advocates who wanted to show the importance of state funding in Columbia facilities.
Last May, the state government cut $17 million in early childhood development and education funds from its budget. These funds, in part, supported Early Head Start, said Darin Preis, director of Central Missouri Community Action, which works to help low-income families with the goal of ending poverty.
Head Start aims to prepare children of low-income families for kindergarten through a curriculum taught by qualified teachers that emphasizes academics and behaviors. It's for children ages 3 to 5. Early Head Start, part of the larger Head Start organization, has the same goals but is for pregnant mothers and children as old as 3 years old.
"It's getting them geared up for the rigors and standardization of kindergarten," said Preis, who is also a member of the Columbia School Board.
Of the money cut in May, $3 million supported Early Head Start, Preis said. While no funding was cut from Head Start programs such as the Park Avenue location, he said the early childhood advocates wanted to show lawmakers that operation because of its success.
Preis said Gov. Jay Nixon has included the early childhood funding that was cut last year in his proposed budget this year. The goal is to keep the programs it supports in representatives' minds as they make decisions on that budget, Preis said.
Preis said the programs are important because children from low-income families who cannot afford preschool are often less prepared for kindergarten than children who attend preschool.
Because of the 2012 budget cuts, 360 children lost their spots in the Early Head Start program in Missouri, according to data from Central Missouri Community Action.
Mary Rook, who directs the Park Avenue Head Start, said 90 children are served there through a partnership program between Head Start and Title I, a federally funded program for children from low-income families. Right now, children are on a waiting list to participate, she said.
"We have built it into something that parents can’t wait to get their children in," Rook said.
On the tour, Kelly and Bernskoetter observed a teacher leading children in working on a counting puzzle and another group of children and adults learning about snow through their senses.
The center focuses on building language development, decision-making and other skills critical to children before kindergarten, Rook said.
"We know that we're reaching the families that need high-quality early childhood intervention," she said.
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