AUGUSTA — Angela Krehbiel Vancil’s two children have benefited from Head Start, the federal early childhood intervention program for low-income families.

The North Monmouth mother is concerned that budget cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage will mean 300 children won’t be able to participate in the program in the future. That’s because enrollment will be capped or some of the children already in the program will not be allowed to return.

As it is now, Head Start covers only 29 percent of the children who qualify for the program — or 3,800 children.

“My daughter Amber, who is now 11, had serious developmental issues as an infant,” she said during a State House press conference. “She began in Head Start when she was six months old. With these early interventions, my beautiful child who didn’t talk until after she turned three, is now flourishing.”

The federal government provides $28.5 million in funding for Head Start each year in Maine and LePage is proposing to eliminate any state funds that go toward the program. The state funds that would end under his proposal to fill a $221 million shortfall at DHHS total $5.3 million over the next 18 months.

At a Thursday press conference, LePage said he simply “ran out of money” for Head Start. He said as governor, it’s his job to keep the budget in balance.

“Before I give money to Head Start, I’m going to protect nursing homes, people with mental illness,” he said.

The threat of lost funding worries teachers at Kennedy Park Head Start in Portland, which serves 36 children ages 3 to 5. Most of the childrens’ parents are recent immigrants and couldn’t afford preschool otherwise, said Kristen Tedesco, a lead teacher in the program run by Opportunity Alliance.

Many of the children are learning to speak English. For some, Head Start provides their first exposure to the language. In addition to working on basic language and math skills, Tedesco and the other teachers assess and reinforce necessary social, emotional and motor skills.

“We close the gap so they can go into public schools and be successful,” said Kristen Tedesco, a lead teacher at the Kennedy Park program. “All children should have access to preschool so they stand a fighting chance to learn along with their peers.”

John Shoos, senior vice president for Community Impact at United Way of Greater Portland, said Head Start helps young children while their brains are developing. He came to the State House to participate in the press conference organized by the Maine Children’s Alliance.

“When children have enriching experiences and relationships — the building blocks of the maturing brain — children get off to a good start, establishing a strong foundation for future development,” he said. “When children don’t have these experiences, because of illness, violence, neglect or other chronic challenges that produce what is now known as toxic stress, children suffer — and so does our state.”

Vancil said the program has not only helped her children, but has helped her get the confidence to enroll at the University of Maine at Augusta, where she is working on a bachelor’s degree.

“My hope is that funding is maintained so that others will have the same opportunity as my family,” she said. “I know first hand that funds invested in Head Start bring life transformational returns.”

Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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