When co-teachers Wendy Cooper and Liza Waterman Marquis learned of the loss of Head Start funding for the Laugh & Learn Preschool on North Haven, unease filled their minds.
“I was worried I would lose my job,” Cooper said. “I was worried we wouldn’t have the funds to continue running our program,” Marquis added.
The two teach at North Haven’s only early childhood education program, housed at Waterman’s Community Center. The preschool serves children ages three to five four days each week, with Fridays devoted to 18-month- to three-year-olds.
Head Start had, since September 2006, provided $334 per child per month of regular attendance. Although North Haven does not meet the income requirements, they were eligible for Head Start funding due to their status as a “medically underserved area,” as described in Section 645 of the 1994 Head Start Act.
Cuts to Head Start, which will affect programs throughout Knox County, are characterized by the Department of Health and Human Services as necessary to “stabilize the safety net and serve Maine’s most needy in a sustainable and more affordable way,” according to John A. Martins, the department’s director of Public and Employee Communications.
Jean Bridges, director of the child development department at Penquis, which administers Head Start funds in Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties, characterized Penquis’ relationship with North Haven as “really wonderful” and said the decision to cut funding had nothing to do with the preschool’s performance or the partnership.
“We looked at county demographics, and if you look at the current enrollment that we were providing to each of those counties and you look at the population of under-fives in the counties, Penobscot County was underserved by 10 percent and Knox County was overserved by 10 percent,” Bridges said.
North Haven lacked sufficient four-year-olds in the appropriate income range, 130 percent of the poverty line or lower, to justify continued funding when other areas had underserved children in range, she said.
Christie Hallowell, Laugh & Learn Preschool’s director and executive director of Waterman’s Community Center, said continuing the preschool without some subsidy or assistance wasn’t feasible.
Hallowell, Cooper, Marquis and a group of concerned parents approached the board of selectmen to request $20,000 to be appropriated from taxation to support Laugh & Learn. William Trevaskis, the board’s chair, said “the most effective and appropriate solution was to go directly to the town itself and hold a special town meeting.”
The town meeting was held on May 24 at the North Haven YMCA. Trevaskis estimated attendance at “over 100 North Haven community members including past, current and future preschool parents.” Many attendees brought their young children. With 84 community members casting ballots, the motion passed 77 to seven.
Cooper said she was overwhelmed and surprised by the community’s support. Marquis shared this sentiment. “It made me feel so happy, seeing the support of the town in helping us continue to foster education for the youngest members of our community,” she said.
Some at the town meeting questioned whether North Haven Community School would provide funding to the preschool. School board member Hannah Pingree explained that taking on the four-year-olds as part of the school program would mean no program for three-year-olds, as well as the loss of a quality program and two quality teachers who currently run Laugh & Learn. “I have a feeling that the school will continue to discuss the best way to support and encourage this program to ensure its long-term stability,” she said.
Special education coordinator Holly Blake emphasized the importance of the preschool program to NHCS. “It’s an important program to have because the majority of children are better prepared for school, socially, emotionally and cognitively,” she said.
Parent contributions will increase both through tuition costs and fundraising, according to Hallowell. “We are, of course, deeply grateful to Penquis Head Start for their monetary support, but also for their guidance, participation and additional services over these past few years,” she said. “I believe that having this program has raised the community’s awareness of the importance and potential of having a substantial early childhood education program in town.”
Courtney Naliboff is a freelance contributor living on North Haven.