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Making early ed work (03/31/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Education commissioner, WAPS, talk about learning for the youngest kids

Both Governor Dayton's administration and the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) District are focusing on early childhood education from birth to preschool as a promising opportunity for improving students' chances at success. Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius met with Winona area educators and administrators last Thursday to hear their thoughts on how to best serve children in their first years of learning. Cassellius' visit is timely. At the board retreat on March 23, the WAPS Board discussed opportunities for improving and expanding early education for local children.

Staff from the district and the state agree on the opportunities: boosting child development at day care centers by offering training for providers, awarding scholarships for early education, and expanding local preschools. They also agree on the challenges, and transportation is a big one.

There are scholarships for low-income children to attend early education programs, "but we can't get the kids there," explained Community Education Administrator Margaret Schild.

State dollars help the district offer cost-free programs for the young children of low-income families, but often, neither the district nor the families can provide transportation. When that happens, those scholarships are a missed opportunity.

Winona's long, narrow shape exacerbates the problem of providing transportation, said WAPS Special Education Adminstrator Judy Vold. Vold asked Cassellius to consider ways to make transportation funding more flexible for districts like WAPS.

The issue also came up at a recent School Board meeting when Schild and others reported on improving early childhood education. The fact that the district is in the midst of a three-year series of budget cuts certainly colors the conversation about allocating new funds for anything. Board member Jay Kohner pointed out, however, that switching to district-run bus service was laid out as an option for future budget cuts. Operating its own bus service might help the district meet the needs of early education programs, Kohner said. In the meantime, Schild said she is working with WAPS Transportation Director Kari Shiroma to work preschool transport into the existing bus schedule as feasible.

Transportation is not the only issue. Offering more preschool classes is key to the early education efforts, WAPS staff said. Currently WAPS offers preschool for just over 100 students at Madison, Goodview, and Rollingstone elementary schools. Thirty-one students were on the waiting list for WAPS preschools last year, Schild reported.

To open more preschool sections, the district would need to hire additional teachers and provide space for those classes. At Rollingstone, preschool classes use other classrooms when they are unoccupied; however, the packing and unpacking of materials required is an inefficient use of staff time, Schild said.

"If you really want to make a commitment to offering more preschool opportunities in the district, there needs to be designated space. There has to be a classroom dedicated to preschool," Schild said.

Finding space for preschool may not be an insurmountable obstacle. On March 23, the board also discussed the state of its facilities. The district's buildings may be too large for the student body, said Superintendent Scott Hannon and board member Steve Schild.

"We were just talking about facilities and space," board member Brian Zeller said, indicating his fellow board members, "[preschool] might be a great use of space."

Other board members, who opposed switching to grade-level elementary schools or closing schools, found the idea of utilizing that space for early education appealing.

Ironically, the space everyone is talking about may not be currently empty. Even with smaller student bodies, the schools are still using their rooms. Some WAPS schools have almost half of the student body they have historically held, yet "you can always use all the rooms," as board member and former teacher Jeanne Nelson put it. Providing preschool classes with dedicated rooms will require some rearranging.

Funding the salaries of new preschool teachers may be a bigger challenge. However, Zeller suggested that duplicating the program at Madison Elementary School would be one possibility for getting around that problem. Winona State University's (WSU) education program runs the preschool at Madison at no cost to the district. The district actually collects rent from WSU.

Probing WSU's interest in that idea is still in its early stages, but it is a possibility. At the meeting with Cassellius, WSU's head of Early Childhood Education said, "We've been really actively looking at how we can share and blend the resources [of all the local entities involved in early education.]"

School Board chair Mohamed Elhindi proposed a summit among the district, WSU, Saint Mary's University, and Southeast Technical College to discuss this an other opportunities.

One of Elhindi's closing comments seemed to sum up the status of the early education initiative. "This district is committed to this program, but figuring out what form and what shape it will take, we are struggling with," he said.

Elhindi asked that staff prepare options for the board to consider in July as to how expanding preschool could be done. It will be a busy summer for board members and district staff. The board is slated to consider options and public feedback for switching to year-round schooling in June and discussions of facilities and grade-level schools are likely to continue into the summer. Keep reading the Winona Post for coverage of all of the important decisions ahead. 


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