A cut to Bellevue’s Head Start program should provoke a community conversation about poverty amid wealth.
BELLEVUE schools supporters are aggressively fundraising to reverse an unexpected elimination of the district’s Head Start program serving prekindergartners from low-income households. The worthy campaign is a dual opportunity for Bellevue: educating kids who need a boost and educating the community about the challenges of its neediest residents.
With little notice, the 151 spots in the Bellevue School District’s Head Start program were eliminated last month. The cuts were shared across the region and were due to rule changes in the federal Head Start program and a decision by the regional Puget Sound Educational Services District, which administers the program; Bellevue had fewer poor kids than needier neighbors.
But the cut fell especially hard on Bellevue: It absorbed 151 of the 399 Head Start slots cut across Pierce and King counties. And the cuts hurt poor kids, regardless of where they live. To be eligible for Head Start, a family of four had to make less than $24,250 a year. Try to survive in Bellevue on that.
The Bellevue Schools Foundation launched a $575,000 fundraising drive to keep the program alive. This week, the Bellevue School District stepped up to fund 65 of the slots, effectively finding loose change in a budget that had already been written. Other agencies also chipped in, reducing the shortfall to 81 slots, according to the district.
The foundation is asking for underwriters — $5,000 would keep a kid in Head Start for the year. Bellevue Schools Foundation Executive Director Lynn Juniel cites undisputed research that high-quality prekindergarten education provides a rocket boost for kids, especially those from low-income homes. “It’s one of the most powerful things you can do for children and their education,” she said.
The emergency should also make Bellevue recognize the poverty lurking beneath its sleek veneer. One in five Bellevue students is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, and the poverty rate is increasing. As high as rent is in Seattle, rent is higher in Bellevue: The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,080, up 5.6 percent from last year, according to the website Curbed.
To make matters worse, some of the Head Start children affected by the cut live in an affordable 76-unit apartment complex near Crossroads, called Highland Village. It is scheduled for demolition and will be replaced by townhomes priced up to $900,000, according to the Bellevue Reporter.
Neon-colored signs now dot windows in Highland Village, protesting the scheduled demolition: “I am Bellevue.”
Indeed. Saving the Head Start slots is a start. But Bellevue must also wrestle with the poverty that is real, growing and widening the economic divide.