District provides free preschool for all 4-year-olds
Every child deserves an equal chance to a good education.
That’s the theory behind a new USD 257 program that joins forces with local preschools and licensed daycare providers to level the playing field for all 4-year-olds in the district, and better prepare them for kindergarten.
A $139,610 state education grant will allow the district to provide preschool to every 4-year-old, including those who attend two private preschools in Iola: Munchkinland and More at 401 S. Walnut, and Ready Set Learn at 602 S. State.
The district has operated its own preschool program since 2010, first at Windsor Place and now at McKinley Elementary School, for students who meet certain income criteria or have special needs. The ANW Cooperative also screens children to see who may qualify for special education preschool services.
“The state wants to educate all children in their least restrictive environment,” Lynette Brungardt, early childhood coordinator for ANW and a school psychologist, said.
Traditionally, “at-risk” preschool programs give a boost to students who may otherwise struggle when they enter the formal school setting. Depending on available space, the program accepted some students who didn’t meet those qualifications; they served as peer mentors.
The new program opens tuition-free preschool to all children, regardless of their family’s ability to pay. The district works with the two private preschools to make sure all children are learning the same material.
The district will provide one teacher at each preschool and transport to McKinley those students who qualify for its services.
“Before, if you didn’t qualify for preschool in this building you had to make a choice to pay for it at one of the private preschools in the community or just not send your kids,” Jenna Higginbotham, instructional coach, said. “Or you might not be able to take off work to transport your children to and from preschool. I was in that situation.”
Preschool has changed over time, Brungardt said. As more parents work, it can be challenging to find a provider and work around schedules for half-day preschool programs.
“We used to have a lot of community-based preschool programs and ANW provided support for those who needed our services. That changed as those providers either retired or stopped for various reasons,” Brungardt continued.
“The state started the at-risk program over 15 years ago and it’s really evolved. Now, we’re getting a blend of kids in our classroom, with special education and at-risk kids as well as those who don’t meet the criteria.”
Angie Linn, McKinley Elementary School principal and USD 257 curriculum director, from left, talks about the district’s new preschool program with instructional coaches Brianna Curry and Jenna Higginbotham, and ANW early childhood coordinator Lynette Brungardt.
THE NEW program is the first time the district has officially partnered with the private preschools, though they’ve long had a sort of collaborative relationship, Ready Set Learn owner Sheri Orear said. She offers morning and afternoon preschool programs.
She’s excited about the opportunities to work with other professionals in the district as well as her peers at Munchkinland. It also will reduce the time she spends transporting children to and from McKinley’s program, which took about three hours.
The children who start classes today at her preschool also are excited because they’ll be attending four days a week instead of just two, as she previously offered.
“Early education is so important but it’s sometimes a burden with people’s schedules and finances. I had a lot of happy parents and they were relieved we see them and we recognize their needs,” Orear said.
“If we can all get on the same page and create that solid foundation, their education is going to be stronger when they get into second, third, fourth grade.”
The grant allows the district to provide transportation to and from McKinley’s preschool program, picking up children from licensed daycare centers throughout the district.
“Having transportation available is huge,” Brianna Curry, instructional coach, said. “That’s always been a hardship for parents.”
The program provides staff, educational materials and professional development training to the private preschools. Jessy Coffield, a former kindergarten teacher, will teach at Ready Set Learn’s class from noon to 3:30 Monday through Fridays. She called it “a dream job” and said the program is a great opportunity for families that don’t qualify for special education or “at-risk” preschool services.
The goal is to teach preschool students using the same material, so all incoming students are adequately prepared for kindergarten. They’ll be more familiar with social interactions with their peers as well as teaching styles and the material, giving them a better foundation when they enter the school system.
“Collaboration is a common theme in our district,” Curry said. “It seems like the right thing to do. We’re not all able to pay for private preschool. Having that opportunity will level the playing field for all our children.”
Angie Linn, McKinley principal and district curriculum director, agreed: “Back when I was a teacher, we always talked about how nice it would be to get all preschools on the same page so all kindergartners would start at about the same level. It’s going to make a difference all the way through, because they’re not spending time catching up each year or coming in behind.”
About 60 students are expected to benefit from the program.
The grant will fund only this year’s program, but administrators said they are very optimistic it will continue. They hope to be able to expand the program to all 3-year-olds at some point; currently, 3-year-olds with special education needs may also qualify for preschool, Brungardt said.