Head Start’s ‘Step Back’

For nearly 60 years, Northwest Montana Head Start has cared for the Flathead Valley’s low-income children. Now, staffing shortages have forced the program to close three of its classrooms.

By Denali Sagner
Northwest Montana Head Start building in Kalispell on Aug. 11, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Aug. 30, schoolchildren across the Flathead Valley will don their backpacks and new sneakers, clamoring onto yellow school buses and waving goodbye to their parents and guardians as the first day of school ushers in the end of a long, hot summer and fall begins to rear its head. Teachers will pen new lesson plans, stocking up on markers and folders. Administrators will prepare to lead their teams through the 10 months that lay ahead.

Yet, amid the excitement of the budding school year, Northwest Montana (NWMT) Head Start will shutter three of its 10 classrooms, keeping 60 spots in its program closed for the foreseeable future.

NWMT Head Start operates the federal Head Start pre-kindergarten program in the Flathead and Tobacco Valleys, where early childhood educators serve more than 150 children across three locations in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Eureka. Beyond providing childcare and pre-kindergarten education to enrollees, Head Start works with families to ensure that they are connected to housing, food, employment, healthcare and other resources — what the program calls “wraparound services.”

Head Start has served thousands of low-income Montana children — 2,916 in 2021 alone — giving supplemental support to some of the state’s most vulnerable students before they enter elementary school. NWMT Head Start served 122 families in Kalispell, 48 families in Columbia Falls, 13 families in Whitefish and the canyon and 16 families in Eureka in the 2021-22 school year.

Yet the exorbitant cost of living in the Flathead Valley, coupled with looming budget cuts and a competitive job market, has produced a dire staffing shortage for NWMT Head Start. While the program has the funding to serve 192 children, its director, Marcy Otten, said that the organization only plans to serve 132 children come the beginning of the school year. Otten would need to recruit six more teachers to run her program at full capacity, a goal that, these days, seems utterly impossible.  

“We have been, like every other early childhood organization in the state and nation, struggling with staffing issues for a couple of years now,” Otten said.

Head Start began in 1965 as a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society campaign, a set of domestic programs designed to improve American education, healthcare and infrastructure, and to ameliorate poverty in both rural and urban communities. As Johnson waged his “war on poverty,” he spearheaded the creation of now-ubiquitous programs such as AmeriCorps VISTA, Social Security, the Food Stamp Program, and Head Start, which began as an eight-week summer program for low-income children before morphing into its current, year-round form. Today, Head Start serves children between the ages of 3 and 5, and Early Head Start serves children from birth to age 3.

The first Head Start program opened in Kalispell in 1969 under the direction of J. Ray Myers, the principal of Cornelius Hedges School. In its inaugural year, Kalispell Head Start enrolled 30 children across two classrooms at the Elrod School, who were taught by teachers Lois Himsl and Marjorie Simpson. By 1972, the program at Elrod had enrolled 45 children.

A child works on a puzzle during all-day preschool at Northwest Montana Head Start. Beacon file photo.

“Nearly half the preschool children of poverty will get a head start on their future. These children will receive preschool training to prepare them for regular school in September. They will get medical and dental attention that they badly need, and parents will receive counseling on improving the home environment,” Johnson said in a 1965 address at the White House. “Five and 6-year-old children are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators. Unless we act these children will pass it on to the next generation, like a family birthmark.”

Eligibility for Head Start is income-based, with the vast majority of spots reserved for families living below the poverty line. As of January 2023, the federal poverty limit was $30,000 for a family of four and $24,860 for a family of three. Families can also qualify for Head Start under a categorical eligibility such as the receipt of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars, supplemental security funds, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funding, of if they are experiencing homelessness.

The anti-poverty mission of Head Start differentiates it from private pre-kindergarten programs and, according to Head Start leaders in Montana, makes its services ever more crucial for the state’s families.

“Head Start is comprehensive. It’s the only program of its kind,” Ashley Peña-Larsen, the president of the Montana Head Start Association, said.

Peña-Larsen emphasized that while Head Start is federally funded, each Head Start program is embedded with local nonprofits and community groups, who work closely with one another to connect families with legal services, affordable housing, employment resources, and mental and physical healthcare.

“Head Start depends on the partnerships that we have in each community,” she said. “We really work with every community partner that we can.”

NWMT Head Start partners with the Flathead and Lincoln County health departments, the Abbie Shelter, United Way, the Flathead Food Bank and Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana, among other local nonprofits, to connect families to much needed services. 

A child colors at Northwest Montana Head Start. Beacon File Photo

The combination of early childhood education with outside-of-school services helps deliver developmental outcomes that can often feel out-of-reach for low-income families, especially in rural areas where access to adequate social services can be sparse. Connecting families with food, housing and medical care can help facilitate stable home environments, which make it easier for kids to succeed in school, Otten said.

In the 2021-22 school year, 89% of NWMT Head Start students were up-to-date on their developmental screenings; 90% were up-to-date on regular well-child and dental visits; and 83% had received hearing and vision assessments. Sixty-seven children received occupational or speech and language therapy services at NWMT Head Start.

Despite the successful outcomes of NWMT Head Start, the program has been unable to escape a dire staffing crisis spawned from an increasingly competitive job market, stagnant budgets, and the rising cost of living in Montana.

“One of the challenges facing early childhood education, but Head Start in particular, has been our workforce over the past several years,” Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association (NHSA), based in Washington, D.C., said.

NHSA is familiar with Head Start teachers leaving their positions for jobs in public schools, or exiting the industry altogether in search of higher paying professions, Sheridan said.

Now, however, the program is not just competing with K-12 schools for staff, but with hourly jobs in gas stations, fast food restaurants and supermarkets, where inflation and labor shortages forced corporations to raise wages and bolster benefits in order to attract workers.

“You can probably make more money at something like Taco Bell in larger cities than as a teaching assistant,” Montana Head Start Association Executive Director Karen Filipovich said.

Filipovich, who runs the statewide membership organization, said that of the 37 Head Start programs she works with, the vast majority are experiencing some sort of staffing shortage.

Children play a game at Northwest Montana Head Start. Beacon File Photo

“The growth of service industry wages, while great — we’d like to have more people having more income — it’s made it harder for programs like Head Start and Early Head Start,” Filipovich said.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, childcare workers in Montana make an average of $12.73 per hour. Walmart pays store associates $17.50 per hour; McDonalds, $14-17 per hour; and Target, $17 per hour.

The exodus of workers from Head Start classrooms has only been exacerbated since the pandemic, when a number of teachers left the field for an early retirement, or in search of a higher salary.

“The staffing shortage is something that, in education in general, we’ve seen coming for a decade or more. It’s not new. The pandemic, however, did expedite the process,” Peña-Larsen said. “It is much more enticing to go to a high-paying job or to be an influencer on social media.” 

The solution to inflation and worker shortages for Head Start is not as simple as raising wages, though, as limited budgets constrain the ability of programs to dole out major salary hikes.

“Being able to pay our staff, it’s not like we can tap into a profit margin to raise staff salaries,” Sheridan said.

Head Start programs are dependent on federal funding for the program, which remains at the whim of a divided Congress that is currently fighting over the federal budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives introduced an appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education that would reduce funding for Head Start and Early Head Start by $750 million. The Democratic-controlled Senate, on the opposite side of the Capitol, provided for a $275 million increase in Head Start funding in its concurrent appropriations bill. Congress and the president will be forced to negotiate on appropriations for a laundry list of federal programs, including Head Start, in order to avoid a government shutdown come October. 

“We are hopeful that through the process, as the House and the Senate negotiate, that we won’t end up with Head Start taking a step back,” Sheridan said, adding that if the House bill passed, cutting $750 million from Head Start, “classrooms would have to close.”

The NHSA deputy director said that during the 2013 federal government shutdown, a number of Head Start programs were forced to shut their doors, while others took out loans from private donors to remain open.

“The needs of children and families have really increased over the past couple of years and especially during the pandemic,” Sheridan said. “That’s why at a time like this, we really need to be doubling down on programs like Head Start.”

As the federal budget remains in limbo, threatening Head Start programs across the country, the rising cost of living in the Flathead Valley has intensified staffing difficulties for NWMT Head Start.

The median sales price for a home in Flathead County was $600,000 in June 2023, as compared to $326,500 in June 2020. The supply of rental homes and apartments has shrunk, and prices have skyrocketed, displacing residents across the valley, many of whom have been forced to leave the area in search of more affordable markets.

For Head Start educators whose wages have failed to keep pace with inflation and rising housing costs, finding housing can be impossible.

“We can’t continue to ask people to work at wages where they can’t afford to live in the communities they work in. And that’s not just early childhood education,” Filipovich said. “People need to be able to live in the communities they work in.”

Homes in Whitefish on June 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Otten said that an early childhood teacher called her the other day and expressed interest in moving to the Flathead Valley to work at NWMT Head Start. Immediately, Otten had concerns about the prospective teacher finding housing.

“Is it a reality that you’re going to be able to move here?” Otten remembered thinking.

Until Otten is able to recruit six more teachers, a weighty task under the current climate, NWMT Head Start will prepare for a school year serving 60 fewer children than they once did. Cutting the number of students in the program allows Otten to pay slightly higher wages, though she knows that even the small increase is likely not enough to combat the economic forces pushing people out of the childcare industry, and out of the Flathead and Tobacco Valleys that they were once able to afford.

“We have been working really, really hard on trying to increase our wages,” Otten said.

For Otten and other Head Start administrators, funding remains by far the largest roadblock to caring for Montana’s low-income children and families.

Filipovich said that across the state, Head Start programs are being forced to turn families away.

“Funding is vital. It turns out you have to pay for services if you want them,” she said.

As NWMT Head Start gears up for the first day of school, Otten said her program is actively seeking donations, and is looking for volunteers and substitute teachers who have an interest in working with children. Those interested in donating or volunteering can visit the program’s website for more information.

“People who need to work have to have childcare, and it’s a childcare desert. Montana is a childcare desert,” Peña-Larsen said. “The need is recognized, however the value in funding put towards it is not.”

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