In recent years, Shadie Hall has always been concerned about possible federal budget cuts to the Aiken-Barnwell Head Start pre-school program that she directs – but she has seen nothing quite like the current funding situation.

If Congress doesn’t find a solution to a gridlock involving budget cuts to decrease the national debt, automatic reductions to the military and many social programs would take effect Jan. 1. The total cuts over 10 years would amount to $1.2 trillion.

The impact to Head Start nationally could be 20 to 22 percent of its budget, said Hall.

“That could mean a loss of $650,000 to our program here and the loss of 476 children,” she said. “We have 90 employees in seven centers in Aiken, Ridge Spring-Monetta, Salley, Gloverville, Barnwell, Williston and Blackville.”

While Congress and the White House almost certainly won’t allow the process, called a sequester, to occur, no one in Washington expected it to get this far without a solution. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on a debt reduction strategy both can live with.

That’s what worries Hall, who cites the value of Head Start for 3- and 4-year-olds and their families.

“I love working with the children and the parents,” she said, “being able to see the growth in families, especially those with more than one child.”

In a Head Start classroom last week, teacher Cassie Bates enjoyed an ongoing conversation with the kids. They talked about the food they were eating for lunch.

“What’s the color of the container?” Blue.

“What’s the color of the arrow to open it.” Red.

“What are you drinking?” One percent milk.

“It’s been a great experience, being able to implement developmentally appropriate activities for them,” said Bates, starting her second year with Head Start. “We focus on school readiness goals and prepare them for kindergarten in the public schools.”

Hall acknowledged that studies in the past have criticized Head Start’s effectiveness. However, she cites research through a 2010 study administrated through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The study indicated in part that “Access to Head Start has positive impacts on several aspects of children’s school readiness during their time in the program.”

The program also provide medical and dental components for the children, said Hall.

“If they have developmental delays or other issues, we can get on top of it early,” she said. “That will put them in a better situation when they go on to public school.”

Hall also cites Head Start’s opportunities for parental involvement. Parents serve on parental, policy and health care advisory committees. Former parents serve as board members for the Aiken-Barnwell Community Action Agency – Head Start’s parent organization in Aiken and surrounding counties.

The national Head Start Association has started a campaign to call House and Senate members of Congress, explaining the services the agency provides.

“It’s about who will care for the children and how they’re being successful in Head Start,” Hall said. “It’s a hand-up, not a hand-out.”

In Bates’ classroom, the kids took turns holding up hand puppets with names like Ollie Orange and Burple Purple.

“It’s a fun way for them to learn their colors,” Bates said.