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Fairfax County is trying to expand access to preschool programs to help address the lengthy waiting list for Head Start.

More than 800 children are on the waiting list for the program, which currently enrolls 1,864 children of low-income parents.

The Head Start program is a federal grants initiative started under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Localities apply for and receive grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which are used to fund comprehensive early development programs that incorporate education, health, nutrition and parenting elements.

It costs about $14,500 per child enrolled in Head Start, and a shortage of space and funding led to the waiting list.

The Fairfax County Office for Children is proposing a $1.2 million expansion of services to try and meet the needs of the children on the waiting list.

The proposed strategies range from expanding literacy activities at county libraries, which can be done with existing funding, to expanding the Mount Vernon Community Head Start program, which would require $135,000 in startup costs and recurring costs of $777,424 to serve 54 additional children, according to Anne-Marie Twohie, director of the Office for Children.

The Mount Vernon site was selected as the first location to expand services “because there is space available there that we could retrofit at pretty minimal costs,” Twohie said. There is also significant demand in that area of the county.

Other proposals include serving 50 additional children through the Virginia Preschool Initiative, which would require a $150,000 cash match of state funds, and supporting a community-based early childhood coordinator to promote school readiness through child care, at a cost of about $100,000.

Funding for these program expansions is not included in County Executive Ed Long’s proposed budget, Twohie said, so the Board of Supervisors would need to add funding for them during the budget review process in order for them to go forward.

If approved, Twohie said they could begin enrolling additional children in September.

At least one county supervisor is committed to taking steps to expand the services. Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) said it is “unconscionable” that a county with a multibillion-dollar budget has hundreds of children on a waiting list for Head Start.

“To me, this should be one of the most fundamental things that we do,” McKay said, because it saves money in the long term when children are more prepared for school.

Because Head Start provides both education and help for families, it has tended to fall between county and Fairfax County Public Schools’ area of responsibility, McKay said. “No one wants to own it,” he said.

McKay said he is pleased to see some forward movement on addressing the waiting list.

“I’m not going to be entirely satisfied until we no longer have a waiting list,” he said, although he acknowledged that it might take several budget cycles to completely close the gap.

The school system is also working to provide some options and funding to support Head Start, which will be presented to the School Board and Board of Supervisors at a later date.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com