In the face of stagnant federal funding, Head Start programs in the Valley have struggled for several years to continue providing services to low-income children and their families.
Now, roughly $1 million in budget cuts are being felt in preschool classrooms, as Maricopa County Head Start programs are forced to reduce both teaching staff and enrollment.
"Our program for at least five years has really been suffering from increased costs and not having any increased funding," said Marjorie Weiss, assistant director of Maricopa County Human Services Department Education Division.
"We are making significant changes next year. Due to that ... we're a very bare-bones organization now."
Head Start is a national school readiness program that aims to prepare children from low-income families through educational, health, nutritional and social services to place them on a level playing field with their peers when they enter kindergarten.
This year, the county will close several East Valley sites, including an Early Head Start program that served 12 children at the Mesa Salvation Army. Instead, traveling teachers will visit those families for 90 minutes per week.
A program at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus will also close, though it will move to a new location in Tempe where rent is cheaper, Weiss said.
In East Valley Head Start and Early Head Start programs alone, enrollment will decrease by some 90 children, down to 1,305 children this year.
The program is also ending its services among boys detained at the Black Canyon Juvenile Detention Facility this week, though services for girl detainees will remain in place.
Staff positions are being cut, too, with the county's programs reducing staff in each classroom from three to two.
Maricopa County budgets mirror the situation of Head Start programs around the nation, which have seen their financial support decrease during the Bush administration, said Ron Herndon, chairman of the board of the National Head Start Association.
Across the country, programs could be forced to cut services to as many as 14,000 children - the result in a loss of real funding of about $1 billion since 2002, he said.
The tough economy is making things harder, too, said Jesse Rodriguez, director of northern Arizona Head Start, who has worked with the state association for more than 30 years.
"Even those people who are your partners, like public schools, health departments, clinics - everyone is in a pinch," he said. "So you feel the pinch of those who can't work with you anymore because they are under the gun. It's some real tough times."
That could happen in Mesa, where three Head Start programs at the East Valley Academy are tied to a teen parent program. When the Mesa Unified School District, which runs the school, cuts the teen parent program next year to address its own budget shortfall, no one knows exactly what will happen to the Head Start programs, Weiss said.
In Tempe, Jane Rupard, principal of Getz Elementary School, said Head Start's funding woes have affected her school directly.
Her school, which serves children with special needs, houses one program, but Rupard has hoped to expand that for years. This year, she will finally have an empty classroom the program coulduse.
"I contacted Head Start and said 'Can you open a second one?' because they've been asking, too. But now they don't have the funding. They said their funds have been cut, and they already had to cut some programs already, so there's no way they can start another," she said. "Every year, they seem to lose more and more money, which is so sad because there aren't fewer and fewer kids who need it. There's more and more. And they do a wonderful job on our campus."
One other agency that runs Head Start programs in the East Valley, Chicanos por la Causa, has not had to deal with budget cuts.
Many of its programs, including one in Queen Creek, are for children of migrant workers, and some of those programs got a bit of a financial boost a couple of years ago, said Sharon Skinner, development coordinator for the group's early childhood development programs.
Still, high fuel prices are making it harder to provide bus service to many of the 752 migrant children they serve statewide, she said.
In addition, Skinner's program, like others in the country, is facing new federal mandates that require teaching staff to have more advanced credentials.
By 2013, half of all teachers will be required to have bachelor's degrees in early childhood development, and all teaching aides must have an associate's degree, she said.
Currently, 64 percent of teachers in the migrant and seasonal programs have associate degrees and 12 percent have bachelor's degrees, she said.
Some program directors are hopeful that they might eventually see some money from First Things First, a 2006 voter-approved initiative that raised tobacco taxes by 80 cents to generate funding for early childhood programs.
In the meantime, however, "it's gloomy," said Rodriguez.
"In a time and age when more people recognize the value of preschool, when people realize preschool is a saving grace for children in low-income families - what a time to cut back in this area."