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Community partnerships key to ensuring access to quality early learning

Posted: Nov 23, 2021
Categories: KSDE
Author: Ann Bush

There is a lot of truth behind the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The “Blueprint for Early Childhood,” a strategic framework for ensuring that every child thrives, was released by the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund in January 2020.

“Young children, birth to 5, and their families rely on a solid foundation in the Kansas early care and education system,” the document states. “The Blueprint guides decision making systemwide and locally so that every community, every provider, every stakeholder and every parent can rely on a network of support that promotes healthy development, strong families and early learning.”

Those three things – healthy development, strong families and early learning – are important, said Amanda Petersen, director of the Kansas State Department of Education’s (KSDE) Early Childhood team.

“You can have the very best preschool and parent education programs in the world, but if a family is stressed and struggling to figure out how to put food on the table every day, then they’re probably not going to be able to provide the best possible environment for their young kids,” Petersen said. “All of those building blocks fit together. If young children don’t have access to health care when they are really young, that can interfere with their ability to develop in a healthy way and to learn. There have to be partnerships at the local level to be able to serve families in a very comprehensive way.”

Coffeyville Unified School District 445 has partnered with businesses and organizations to provide more opportunities for the city’s youngest learners.

“It’s been a labor of love for many years,” said Dr. Craig Correll, Coffeyville’s superintendent, of the Dr. Jerry Hamm Early Learning Center (ELC).

The ELC is a comprehensive, universal preschool for Coffeyville and surrounding communities, according to the district’s website.

“Achievement gaps begin even before students come through the door,” Correll said.

And like many cities across Kansas, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for child care, so the decision was made to expand the ELC. A donor stepped forward and offered to match whatever amount the community raised – which was $1.1 million, including donations from businesses and Coffeyville Community College. The Coffeyville Coalition for Early Education, a 501(c)(3), was formed to help manage donations.

With the match from the donor, $2.2 million was raised, allowing for new and updated mechanical and electrical systems and new/renovated programming and space.

Today, the ELC has three classrooms for infants/toddlers ages birth to 3. These full-day classrooms are run by Head Start. There are nine classrooms for students ages 3 to 5, with seven being full-day classrooms and two being half-day classrooms. The ELC serves a total of 214 students. While the ELC is staffed by several different entities, about 95% of the employees are paid through the district, Correll said.

“I think it shows how important the early years are for a student,” he said of the ELC. “If we’re not able to catch them early, we may see issues throughout their school career.”

The district also partners with Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas (CHC/SEK) to offer health clinics at the preschool, elementary school and one that serves both the middle school and high school. Students, staff members and the community can go to the clinics for primary medical, dental, behavioral health and school nurse services. Coffeyville USD 445 contracts for school nurse services and also provides in-kind space, covers utilities in the clinics and provides a supply budget for each site. The health center invests about $500,000 annually for staff, equipment and supplies.

“it’s really a boon for working parents,” Correll said. “Student health has always been a goal of ours.”

Coffeyville USD 445 also partners with Windsor Place Nursing Home for the Age-to-Age kindergarten program. The partnership began in 2008. The intergenerational environment pairs kindergarten students with residents, also known as "grandmas and grandpas." Students read to the residents and vice versa.

Like Coffeyville, Pittsburg faces a shortage of child care and early education opportunities, said Ann Elliott, executive director of The Center in Pittsburg.

The Center first opened as the Family Resource Center in 1997. It was licensed for child care and preschool for 142 children and opened its doors for classes on Aug. 25, 1997, Elliott said. In just a few months, the Family Resource Center had surpassed an enrollment of 200 and had a waiting list of 50. The staff numbered 26, and there were numerous collaborating partners. Funding was 75% user fees and 25% grants, donations and gifts in-kind, according to The Center’s website, http://www.thecenterpittsburg.org/.

By August 2005, The Center’s enrollment reached 500 and the waiting list still hovered just under 100. Funding was at 30% user fees and 70% grants, donations and gifts in-kind.

In August 2009, more than $2 million was raised to renovate a building and move The Center. With the help of 200 volunteers, the move happened quickly and The Center didn’t have to close for one day.

“Everyone knows how important early education is,” Elliott said. “Education doesn’t start in kindergarten. It starts when they are born. Our district (Pittsburg USD 250) understands that process. The district is a huge partner for us. We collaborate with the district for trainings, and the district has helped purchase some pre-K curriculum. They are an excellent partner to have.”

The Center also partners with the local hospital, Pittsburg State University, SEK Interlocal 637 Early Childhood Special Education Services, Infant-Toddler Mental Health (Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – IDEA) and several other community organizations.

In fact, four of The Center’s nine classrooms are led by special education teachers through an interlocal comprised of Pittsburg USD 250 employees, Elliott said. And the district offers busing services for The Center’s students.

The Center still has a waiting list – 62 are on the infant waiting list; 61 are on the toddler waiting list; and 22 are on the 3-year-old waiting list. Currently, there aren’t any students on a wait list for the 4-year-old program.

It is The Center’s goal to serve every student, Elliott said. That is why there are plans underway for a $7 million expansion that would offer an additional 51 toddler slots and add an all-day pre-K option – currently, The Center only offers a half-day pre-K option.

Not having enough child care options can impact economic development, according to Elliott. The Imagine Pittsburg 2030 Plan began in the summer of 2010 when business, education and community leaders in the area identified a need for a visioning effort to address the community’s opportunities and challenges. One of the areas of focus was working to improve access to child care.

“If you don’t have quality child care, people won’t go to work,” Elliott said. “Employers need to understand how important those first few years are for brain development.”

1-800-CHILDREN, powered by the Kansas Children’s Service League, can help provide parents 24/7 support without judgment. Parents can find helpful local resources and supports by visiting https://1800childrenks.org/ or connect with a real person by calling 1-800-CHILDREN. 1-800-CHILDREN offers free and confidential support in English and Spanish, as well as multiple other languages.

“It can be hard if you are new in a community and are trying to figure out what services are available or what support is available,” Petersen said. “No matter where you are at in Kansas, 1-800-CHILDREN is a resource to help you know what is available in your community.”

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