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District 833 preschool program to expand

Preschool kids at Pullman Elementary School sing songs in their classroom with teacher Nicole Wildman. The children were enjoying "hat day" at the school. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner.

School District 833 has taken note that education research is increasingly showing that kids are more successful if they attend preschool.

With two schools already offering half-day classes for 4-year-olds and 5-year olds that were not old enough to enroll in kindergarten, the district plans to offer preschool classes next year--with transportation--at all but two elementary schools.

There is a fee for classes, offered through Community Education, with a sliding fee scale based on family income. Scholarships are available for those who can't afford the fees.

With dwindling resources, school districts get the most return for money spent by getting children ready to learn before kindergarten, said Dave Bernhardson, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

"Much of the development that influences achievement throughout life occurs before children even set foot in school," he said.

Kindergarten is not what it used to be when parents of today's children went to school, he said. Then, kindergarten was primarily a place to socialize students.

Today's kindergartens are more rigorous, he said, with academic standards that must be met.

There are also long-term benefits for students and the district if children attend preschool.

"We set them on the road to success and limit the number of interventions they might need later," Bernhardson said.

Two years ago, nearly half of Pullman Elementary School's kindergarten class was not ready for school, according to principal Ed Ross, and the situation was similar at Newport Elementary School.

Both schools, because of high populations of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, receive federal money to give additional academic assistance.

The school board approved funding for half-day preschool classes this year at both schools and that will continue, Bernhardson said.

"You can tell which children are in the preschool classes," Ross said last fall. "Their backpacks are bigger than they are."

Without waiting for an evaluation of classes at Newport and Pullman, the district decided to move ahead with preschool classes for all district 4-year olds.

It's apparent to Bernhardson, however, that the effort is worthwhile. "The kids are very capable," he said, adding that the majority of them had no preschool experience.

Offering half-day preschool classes doesn't mean the district is backing away from having the state pay for all-day kindergarten, Bernhardson said, adding that Gov. Mark Dayton favors that proposal.

The district has half-day kindergarten, now, at no cost. Parents can have their children in all-day programs for a fee.

Because a greater need for preschool was detected, children in the attendance boundaries of Crestview and Hillside elementary schools will have five-days of classes. With no space at Crestview, children will be bused to Hillside.

Armstrong, Bailey, Cottage Grove, Grey Cloud, Pine Hill, Royal Oaks and Woodbury schools will have classes three days a week.

With no space for additional classes, preschool will be held at Central Park and Valley Crossing for children in the Red Rock and Liberty Ridge elementary school attendance boundaries, Bernhardson said.

Parents can also enroll their children at Royal Oaks or Bailey elementary schools but no transportation is available.

The preschool option is the result of a "significant partnership" with Community Education, Bernhardson said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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