Note: To see video of Sen. Durbin reading to Head Start students, click "View Gallery" to the right.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, made the trip to Aurora Wednesday morning to speak out against budget cuts that threaten Head Start programs in Illinois.
Speaking at Two Rivers Head Start Agency, Durbin said the cuts—part of the Fiscal Year 2011 Appropriations Bill, passed by the House last month—could potentially leave 218,000 low-income children without early childhood education next year, and cause more than 16,000 Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms to close their doors nationwide.
In Illinois, that would mean roughly 9,000 three-to-five-year-olds would lose access to early childhood classes, offered at affordable rates for families struggling to make ends meet. It would also mean the loss of up to 2,000 jobs. To Durbin, that would be a disastrous choice.
“We have one chance with a child to do it right,” Durbin said. “If we miss that opportunity, their lives change forever. Our lives change forever.”
Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner joined him in speaking out: “If we want to be competitive, (Head Start) is exactly the type of program we should be trying to enhance, not to cut,” he said.
The proposed appropriations bill would cut education programs by nearly $4.9 billion, according to Durbin, and eliminate $1.1 billion from Head Start’s funding for 2011. And local Head Start programs need “every penny” of that money to make their budgets work, said Diane Lacey, executive director of Two Rivers Head Start.
Two Rivers operates agencies as far north as Elgin, and as far south as Morris. The Aurora center serves 225 kids and their families (and Two Rivers facilities serve more than 300 in Aurora), with a further 100 on a waiting list, Lacey said. The Yorkville center serves 51, with five more waiting in line.
And both centers offer half-day and full-day classes, to allow working parents to leave their children in Head Start’s care. Lori Morrison-Frichtl, executive director of the Illinois Head Start Agency, said Head Start programs offer more than education—they involve parents at every level, and provide assistance and counseling for them as well.
“I understand the need to cut unnecessary and wasteful spending,” she said, “but before we cut programs like Head Start, we need to convince Congress that there is nothing more important than our children’s future.”
Fabian Guerrero of Aurora would agree. He has sent his three kids through Two Rivers Head Start. His oldest, Fabian Jr., now 12, experienced Attention Deficit Disorder, he said, but with the help of the teachers at Two Rivers, he’s now one of the top students in his middle school.
His youngest son, Yair, now 7, had difficulty learning at a young age. It was Head Start professionals who discovered the reason why: he had a hearing problem, which was affecting his ability to understand his teachers. A few visits to a specialist, and Yair is now impressing his second-grade teachers, and reading at a fourth-grade level.
And Guerrero’s daughter, Yaretzi, four years old, is a current student at Two Rivers Head Start. The classes have done wonders for his daughter, Guerrero said, and the thought that Head Start could lose its federal funding distresses him.
“If we cut this, and the kids fall behind, what happens to them?” he said. “If we don’t start early, it’s hard for them to get a real education in high school.”
Congressman Randy Hultgren, R-Wheaton, voted for the appropriations bill. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The Senate has not yet voted on the bill.
While at Two Rivers Head Start, Durbin stopped in on one of the classrooms and read aloud a book called “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear,” much to the delight of the 13 students in the class. They clapped, made animal noises when prompted, and laughed and smiled through the entire thing.
“That was a good story, wasn’t it?” Durbin asked when he was finished, and the kids cheered back at him.