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From Altoona Mirror:

Blair County children are feeling the effects of a statewide reduction of funding and availability of public pre-kindergarten, an obstacle that could affect their school readiness, according to Blair County Head Start.

There have been severe state budget cuts to pre-kindergarten programs such as Head Start that have forced them to cut hours and accommodate fewer children, Planning and Development Coordinator Erica Peterson said.

Blair County Head Start - a comprehensive program for children of low-income families that addresses emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs - has lost about $87,000 in state funds in the past year, Peterson said.

The loss has affected some programs so severely that the former six-hour days have been cut nearly in half, resulting in a significant loss of instruction time, Peterson said.

"If the state keeps cutting our budgets and we have to reduce our hours with [children], it's so much more difficult to get them to where they need to be with their peers when they start kindergarten," she said. "We have to keep doing more with less, and it hurts the children, especially at such a crucial age."

The county Head Start currently works with 428 children, with 70 more on the waiting list.

"It's just unfortunate because these kids are just waiting to get in who really need our services," Peterson said. "If they have to wait too long, they might miss out altogether, and that's certainly not good for their school readiness."

The inability to accommodate more children comes at an especially inopportune time. The number of children younger than 5 years old living in low-income families - which would qualify them for Head Start's programs - has grown statewide and locally since the 2000 census.

According to the 2006-08 American Community Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 percent of children in Blair County are living in low-income families. The statistics were included in an annual school readiness report released earlier this week by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

Statewide, about 40 percent of children are living in low-income families, the report said.

It's possible that the financial situation throughout the country due to the recession has increased those numbers even more since 2008, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children spokeswoman Kathy Geller Myers said.

"What's happened has resulted in a a lot of unemployment, and families are just barely getting by," she said. "A lot of them are living in poverty, and their children are losing health insurance and other things they need, especially at such a young age."

Joan Benso, president and CEO of PPC, said it's important to make sure every child has the opportunity to enter school ready to learn and thrive.

"The formative years between birth and 5 cannot be recaptured," she said. "So we need to do everything we can to ensure young children get the early learning experiences that create the foundation for a successful life."

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