Preschool for every child. But where?
A long school board discussion about the potential for adding another 1/2 preschool teacher at Sabetha Elementary School and a preschool program at Wetmore Elementary School has drawn out concerns about whether every 4-year-old district child has the same opportunity to attend preschool.
The Kansas State Department of Education’s new vision for Kansas — “Kansans Can” — focuses on five outcomes it says truly measure how successfully Kansas schools are preparing students. Kindergarten readiness is targeted as one of these five outcomes of “success” that will be measured, placing a higher degree of important on early childhood education than ever before.
In response to this vision, the new tentatively proposed K-12 School Funding Bill has built in increased funding of $2 million each year for the next five years for 4-Year-Old At Risk, money districts use to provide “Pre-Kindergarten” education for students who meet at least one of the eight criteria set by the state.
In Prairie Hills USD No. 113, these are known as 4-year-old State Preschool classes. These classes currently are provided at Axtell and Sabetha schools, with headcounts of 12 and 17, respectively. The district receives funding for a total of 24 units, and each student accounts for half of a unit. Both Axtell and Sabetha also offer IEP Preschool classes that service 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, with enrollments of five and 26, respectively. These IEP classes are for students who have an Individualized Education Plan.
At the Prairie Hills USD No. 113 Board of Education’s regular meeting Monday, April 10, the board was approached with requests from both Sabetha and Wetmore regarding preschool offerings.
At SES, the request was brought before of the board to consider an additional 1/2 teacher for the State Preschool. The reason for this request, said Superintendent Todd Evans, is the continued increasing number of students screened who qualify for the preschool.
Current SES preschool teachers Holly Meyer and Donna Elder said that 34 students were screened for the State Preschool this year. Of those, 15 were automatic qualifiers, and the remaining 19 went through the developmental screening process. Of those 19, only four did not qualify.
At this time, none of these applicants are from the Wetmore area, Elder said. In recent years, she said, five or less of the students served have been from Wetmore.
Meyer and Elder stated that no qualifying student has ever been turned away from the State Preschool before, so they were unsure of how to proceed, thus deciding to propose adding the 1/2 teacher.
“I have always had manageable class sizes until now,” Meyer said. “So I guess now we need to know what to do.”
Board Member Jeff DeMint asked what the ideal maximum number of students would be per classroom. Meyer said she already has exceeded that number, and that her ideal number is no more than 12.
DeMint clarified that he believes the board is being asked whether to take all the qualifying students — therefore adding a 1/2 teacher — or to turn some students down.
Meyer and Elder said that was correct, and if the board wanted them to turn down qualifying students they would need to know how that was supposed to be decided.
Board members discussed the possibility of prioritizing applications to determine which students would be turned down. The board asked how the applications could be prioritized. Meyer said she dates the applications, so one option could be by date of application. However, she said, many of the students who might need it most are sometimes the later applicants.
Toedman said she has a concern about prioritizing those applications, as that was not made clear from the beginning.
Board Member Leslie Scoby said she had concerns that the district could be making a decision that would negatively impact Sabetha’s three private preschools — Sabetha Community Preschool, First Lutheran Christian Preschool and NorthRidge Family Development Center Preschool.
“I want to be supportive of programs that people have invested in for many years,” L. Scoby said. “I don’t ever want to take away from what I think are very good programs in our community.”
L. Scoby asked what types of development markers could make a child qualify. Meyer said the screeners use the IDEA screening, and it addresses cognitive development, physical development, communication and literacy, social-emotional and behavior, and adaptive behavior or self-help skills. She said it could range from gross motor skills like skipping to communication skills like rhyming.
L. Scoby questioned whether the current private preschools in Sabetha would be able to properly serve students who had some of these delays. Elder said she believed they could.
Board Member Kent Saylor said he wants to be careful not to make a decision that results in some students not attending preschool at all.
“The thing I think you’d hate to see is someone who ends up not sending the kid at all, because they can’t afford it or can’t manage it,” Saylor said. “It’s a real hard decision.”
Director of Student Learning Jennifer Gatz said the bottom line is that the district wants to ensure every child has the opportunity to attend preschool.
“We want to make sure that all students are entering kindergarten ready for kindergarten,” Gatz said.
Toedman said it is important that every child has the opportunity to attend preschool.
“My biggest concern is that we have students who are not getting anything,” Toedman. “It bothers me to think that we have kids sitting at home not getting anything to prepare for kindergarten.”
L. Scoby said she believes the district and private preschools need to dialogue with each other to figure out a plan to ensure all students have the opportunity to attend preschool and be prepared for kindergarten.
“If we are going to start offering preschool for all 4-year-olds at some point in the near future, that needs to be figured out,” L. Scoby said.
L. Scoby said she wants open dialogue to happen between the district and the private preschools before she will make a decision.
Superintendent Evans asked how long would be too long to wait on making this decision.
Toedman said the waiting period could affect the hiring of a quality applicant for that position.
Meyer noted that parents who have applied and their children qualified are left hanging until a decision is made.
L. Scoby said that the other private preschools are also left hanging, not knowing how those enrollments will be affected until a decision is made.
Evans said the district will coordinate a conversation with the private preschools in Sabetha prior to the May board meeting.
Wetmore Academic Center Principal Janelle Boden says she wants to make a change that aligns with KSDE’s vision for kindergarten readiness, and that is offering preschool at Wetmore.
“In kindergarten this year, eight students walked in our door with absolutely no preschool education,” Boden said.
With a total kindergarten enrollment of 12, this means that 2/3 of those had no preschool. Boden said this is a pattern year after year at Wetmore, and she believes it centers around “opportunity.”
While Axtell and Sabetha currently offer both State Preschool and IEP Preschool options, Wetmore does not. Wetmore students who qualify do have the option of being bussed to Sabetha for these preschools, but not many families choose to do this.
“This is a one hour or more on the bus each day for a preschool student,” Boden said. “This is something we need to offer locally in our community.”
With requests continuing to come in from community members, Boden said she decided to look into whether Wetmore Elementary School could offer preschool locally.
She determined that the current kindergarten teacher, Anissa Bloom, would be willing to teach a combined preschool and kindergarten classroom in the mornings, which would eliminate the need for an additional preschool teacher.
She also determined, based on community response, that they would have six 4-year-olds confirmed for the 2017-18 school year, and 12 for the 2018-19 school year.
Saylor said he believes it makes a lot of sense to give this a shot.
“We want to get all the kids we can in our district in preschool,” Saylor said.
DeMint asked if this means the district would be spreading its 24 state preschool spots across more locations. Evans said they could apply for more, but he does not know if the district would have a good chance of being approved for more.
Evans said he needs to look into what determinations need to be made to start a new preschool before he could offer any more accurate information to the board.
DeMint said he is in favor of the idea, but he wants Evans to be comfortable with the information first.
Board Member Kathy Lippert said it sounds like a lot more questions need to be answered before the board can consider this request, saying that it appeared Evans had not been “included in the conversation.”
Evans said he will bring additional information to the board’s May meeting for consideration of this request.
See full minutes from the board’s April 10 meeting on Page 5B of this week’s Herald.
Amber Deters140 Posts
Amber Deters is Co-Editor of The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2005. She specializes in school board, election and legislative reporting, as well as photography and page and advertising design. Amber is a 2005 Kansas State University graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communications, print journalism sequence. She lives in Sabetha with her husband and three children.