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Education budget crunch could threaten early childhood programs

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
April 19, 2011 at 4:05 p.m.
Updated April 18, 2011 at 11:19 p.m.

Leticia Carbajal sings for Rodrigo Martinez, 2, right, while his brother, Eliseo Martinez, 4, and mother Beverly Haynes watch. Carbajal is a parent educator and travels to different homes twice a day to work with children in early educational activities.

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For more information on the Family Connection Center contact the group at 361-788-9673 or 1611 E. North St. in Victoria.

Tiny fuzzy pompoms and puzzles are the highlight of Rodrigo Martinez' school day. Rodrigo, a curly-haired, chatty 2-year-old, fumbles around with the toys as part of his toddler school lessons to help him learn motor skills and problem solving.

It's part of a school district initiative that, together with pre-kindergarten programs, help students and parents get ready for grade school before setting foot in a classroom.

"I think if he didn't have any of this interaction, he would probably just slack off when he got to pre-k," said Beverly Haynes, 27, Rodrigo's mother. "He'll be shier, and maybe he won't learn as fast. When you become a mother, you start to worry about stuff like that - that he'll have issues you can't fix."

The program uses facilitators to go into family homes and teach parents how to ready toddlers for pre-kindergarten.

But early childhood development is an initiative that could be seeing a loss of funds because of state cutbacks.

"It's very scary for us as a state and a country as to what's going to occur when you start cutting from early childhood," said Rachel Parsons, Family Connection Center coordinator.

The center houses the federally-funded Parents as Teachers program that works with Haynes and Rodrigo and state funded pre-kindergarten grant programs that have been zeroed out in initial state budget drafts.

Budget cut estimates are vague, and while no program changes have been made at the district level, estimates according to Moak and Casey, a school finance group, calculate the district could lose anywhere between $5.6 million to $9.7 million. The recently approved house budget suggests a $1.8 billion decrease to funding for early-childhood programs like pre-kindergarten. The decrease would zero out those grants that help pay for programs that prepare students for grade school.

The programs are critical for students who come from low-income families, who make up about 65 percent of students in the district, administrators have said. That's about six percentage points higher than the state average.

"Oftentimes, kids come to kindergarten with fewer experiences and exposure," said Cathy Peace, who is not an employee of the district but heads the pre-kindergarten grant program. "If a child's not had anything except the home environment or maybe a day care. there's a lot to get that child ready to be successful in kindergarten."

Haynes learned the value of early-education the hard way. When she had her first daughter, Destiny, she worked nights at a gas station and rarely had time for reading or games. Destiny, now 7 years old, seems less interested in schoolwork and struggles.

"Her grades are going up and down, up and down," Haynes said.

Now, early education is a family effort. She takes all three of her children to the Family Connection Center where they use bright-colored toys, books and computers for free.

Haynes believes places like the center help children because they can have free access to things not all families can afford.

"Places like this helps a whole lot, too, because they have the computers, they have the whole room," she said.

Haynes, who worked in fast-food her entire life, believes getting a head start on education will help her children go farther than she did. She decided to go back to school in her late 20s and is now studying at Victoria College to be a teacher while working part time.

"I was a store manager at McDonalds and I said, 'no I can't do that anymore. I'm going to be stuck here for the rest of my life,'" she said. "That's why I push them that they need to go to school. They have the potential to do stuff and do stuff big."

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