Pre-K program draws skeptics: State funding, qualifications concern daycare owners

Posted: Thursday, March 05, 2009

In the many of life's early lessons preschoolers learn, perhaps none is more important than that of friendship and learning to play with others.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Jessica Baker, co-owner of the Early Childhood Development Center in Soldotna, works with youngsters Wednesday afternoon. She and other childcare center owners were upset when they found out that funding was set aside for a new early childhood development program. "I was livid," she said.

For whatever reason, in the past two decades, owners and operators of peninsula childcare facilities have started to lose sight of that amongst themselves. Now they're looking for unity within the field.

This fall, Gov. Sarah Palin allocated $2 million for early childhood education in the proposed state operating budget.

If approved, the money would be used by the Department of Education to create a year-long pilot program that would, in part, incorporate 4- to 5-year-olds into early education programs in district public schools.

Some area childcare providers are concerned that if the pilot program catches on, they may lose their livelihoods. As a result, they've begun to band together.

Lauralee Peterson, an early childhood education consultant, advocate and trainer, is working to establish the Kenai Peninsula Early Childhood Foundation. Meanwhile Tom Bearup, owner of the Ark, a childcare center in Soldotna, is in the early stages of organizing a similar group, though Bearup and Peterson said they won't duplicate each other.

The two groups are organizing to provide training and career building opportunities as well as cohesiveness among childcare providers.

While the pilot program awaits approval along with the state operating budget, Eric Fry, spokesman for the DOE, said if passed, school districts could apply to take part in the program, with funding being provided on a competitive basis. He believed approximately 500 students across the state could be served.

The program would have two facets, according to Fry.

The first would be in the in-school portion, where 4- to 5-year-olds would go to pre-k programs set up in district schools for five hours a day, five days a week. Students would follow a curriculum designed for pre-k students, have class sizes no larger than 20 and be provided with some of the same health screening that's provided in public schools, like vision and hearing checks.

Additionally, Fry said the teachers might be required to hold a bachelor's degree while assistant teachers would have to hold an associate's degree.

He stressed however, that because the program would be a test run, standards would be flexible.

The second aspect of the program would be to use part of the money for parents who care for their children at their own home. Parents could tap into educational resources like library materials, having educators work with their students at home or providing opportunities for parents to work with educators through seminars or workshops.

It's the first part of the pilot program however, that has local childcare providers concerned.

Peterson said she's opposed to the DOE's current plan for a few reasons.

"Our first concern is that it will hurt the private sector, and it absolutely will," Peterson said. "We also felt any opportunity to pilot any new programs should be allowed to be done in private sector as well."

Bearup and Peterson also said that while they doesn't oppose the DOE potentially raising the standards required to teach preschoolers, they're concerned that not many area providers will be able to meet those standards, and may not be able to afford a degree either.

"I would like to see everybody have a degree, but if you take the resource away we can't afford to do that, so we will lay people off instead," he said.

Peterson said that the foundation she's working to form would help provide grant money for industry professionals so they could pay for higher education and training.

That may not be enough though, and Bearup said he'd like to see some of the money potentially being allocated for the pilot program instead be used to help current childcare providers.

"Why not instead of starting a new pilot program, take existing programs and provide training dollars for the people in the industry that want to improve their capabilities," Bearup said.

Bearup and Peterson have other concerns with sending students to public school pre-k programs.

They pointed out that working parents with young children typically leave their children in childcare programs from eight to 10 hours a day.

If an in-school program were to be held for five of those hours, students would need to be transported.

"Who takes care of them? How do they get home? We're talking about young children here," Bearup said.

Additionally he pointed out that if the program catches on, it will likely grow, placing a greater burden on the school district.

Early childhood education isn't necessarily new, according to Fry.

"We're following a national trend. I don't know how many states already do this, but we're not blazing a trail," Fry said.

Head Start programs already are offered through the state, however, Fry said that the pilot program will target all students, not just the underprivileged.

He explained that the impetus behind early childhood education comes from concerns that some children enter kindergarten underprepared.

"There is a growing consensus that a lot of kids don't come to school prepared to learn, that they're behind in their language skills and maybe behind in their social skills," Fry said.

He said that if students are already behind when they enter kindergarten, they may struggle through out the rest of their educational career.

Whether early childhood education becomes the norm for students around the state depends on the outcome of the pilot program.

"We would hope that if people felt the program is a good idea and working with the Legislature would work to continue funding, but for now the focus is on the one-year pilot program," Fry said.

Peterson said she thinks the Legislature will likely approve of the $2 million allocation this year and the pilot program will likely be a go.

"The feeling I have right now is that it could definitely make it through. When we cut budgets support for education usually stays solid," Peterson said.

According to Dr. Donna Peterson, superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the district has been supportive of early childhood education programs. "Pre-k education is one of our top priorities," Donna Peterson said.

She said while the district as a whole was not seeking to create a pilot program, they were willing to partner up with and provide support to organizations that wished to.

She said that so far there have been no requests for partnerships on the central peninsula.

She also said the district was being mindful of not stepping on the toes of the private sector.

"We're really open to the sharing of resources, but if someone's making money then we're trying not to get into their business or service," she said.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.



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