Head Start program expanded to help Flint’s kids

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will expand the Head Start program in Flint to provide increased behavioral and educational services to children affected by lead exposure, the agency announced Wednesday.

The expansion will be funded with $3.6 million in one-time emergency funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Lead really has the ability to slow down brain development,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response and the lead federal official for Flint. “A huge thing is to stimulate children’s brains early in life ... with all the kinds of things that Head Start and Early Head Start offer.”

The funding will be used, in part, to lengthen the current Head Start school year by three weeks in Flint. Three additional class rooms will be opened, allowing 51 additional children to enroll from this month through June 2017.

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, all Michigan Democrats, were present on the conference call announcing the funding on Wednesday.

“Head Start without question provides the kind of early intervention that will make a real difference in these children’s lives,” said Peters, adding more needs to be done to assist children in Flint.

In addition to more classrooms and an expanded school year, the funding will:

■ Increase the intensity of behavioral health services, health services and nutrition services available to Flint children.

■Offer families more home visiting support.

■Increase transportation to assist families who need to make doctor and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program appointments, and to pick up bottled water for their homes.

Of 6,000 Flint-area children eligible to participate in Head Start, just 1,100 are enrolled, according to Peters. HHS Office of Head Start Director Blanca Enriquez added 800 children are on a waiting list for Head Start in Flint.

“We will be able to serve a small number of children that are very high need and very high priority at this time,” Enriquez said.

Peters said Congress should swiftly approve legislation he introduced Feb. 3, along with Stabenow, that would allow HHS to award one-time, five-year Head Start or Early Head Start grants to areas where a federal emergency has been declared due to water pollution from lead or other toxic substances.

Kildee proposed similar funding in the House as part of a comprehensive appropriations package to address the Flint water crisis.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of Hurley Medical Center’s Pediatric Residency Program, who is credited for raising awareness to the high lead levels in the blood of Flint’s children, has said the most crucial help is Head Start preschool aid as it offers intervention at a critical time when kids who were exposed to lead are now 1-3 years old.

“We are at critical opportunity for these kids, and central to any intervention we can do is education, education, education, education,” she said last month.

KBouffard@detroitnews.com