CHEYENNE – Several Wyoming groups are trying to start a statewide conversation about preschool and students’ access to it.
“The most rapid period of development in a child is pre-age 5,” said Becca Freeburn-Steinhoff, executive director of Wyoming Kids First.
“Children who start behind are more likely to stay behind. [We] want to make sure they have the best start possible.”
Wyoming Kids First is working to raise the level of conversation about preschool practices across the state. It also hopes to help identify some of the best practices being used.
“What [is] challenging in this state is we don’t have a definition for quality,” Freeburn-Steinhoff said.
Her group isn’t advocating a one-size-fits-all solution, she said. Rather, it wants to see more sharing of the good work that agencies are doing in ways that make sense for communities.
One end goal is to have affordable access for all students to pre-K services, Freeburn-Steinhoff said.
“There is a lot of work that is being done in individual communities, but in aggregate we’re struggling a bit,” she said. “The collaboration we’re seeing now [is] at the local level.”
There are several school districts and groups that have worked to increase pre-K opportunities.
In Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne, some federal Title I money helps run a prekindergarten program. It’s free, but it is only open to students in Title I schools, teacher Donna Garcia said.
“When they come into school, [the kids] are so excited about learning,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to be social and interact with children. They just soak it up.
“It is really important to start with a positive experience, and pre-K does that. It’s a really well-balanced program [with] work and play.”
This year, the program is being run at Cole Elementary. It has classes once a week for 3-year-olds and two days a week for 4- and 5-year-olds. It focuses on literacy and working with numbers.
“Literacy is really huge: We want them to know the alphabet and phonemic awareness,” Garcia said. “Last year, by January, I had over 40 kids starting reading groups.”
The program expanded this year to offer more sections and has about 112 students. But there is still a waiting list for the 3-year-old group.
“[We] try to service as many as we can,” Garcia said.
Some parents said they started their 3-year-olds in the program for the academic benefit and to make sure they got slots the following year.
“[I] would definitely recommend it,” KaLee Lopez said. “Everyone I meet, if they live in the boundaries, [I] tell them they need to go and apply. It’s a great option.”
She just started her second child in the program after seeing the success her older student had.
“I was so impressed with [Garcia] and the program itself,” Lopez said. “She’s fantastic with kids that age.”
The program is geared toward having students ready for kindergarten. But there are hopes that it will have a longer-lasting impression on students, said Brent Young, assistant director of instruction for LCSD1.
“The end goal is college-and career-ready kids,” he said. “But when you’re talking 3-year-olds, the first stake is: Are they ready when they get to kindergarten?”
Thus far, the program has been successful in doing that, with many of them continuing to test at grade level several years afterward, Young said.
In Laramie County School District No. 2, preschool options are available in both Burns and Pine Bluffs, Superintendent Jack Cozort said.
Teacher Nikki Poelma started her own informal preschool and community outreach program at Albin Elementary in LCSD2 to help prepare students.
“The program continues to be popular, and I have seen a difference in the preparedness of incoming students,” she wrote in an email.
In Fremont County School District No. 6, officials have added a mobile preschool in an effort to meet more students, Superintendent Diana Clapp said.
The bus service started in 2012 and was increasingly popular throughout the year, she said.
“It was our intention that we would visit every child on the list every other week,” Clapp said. “The rotation had to be far more selective because it would [have been] once every five weeks.”
This year, the bus will spend another day on the road each week with the goal of meeting students more often.
Like the one in LCSD1, the program is free, but it is open to any student in the district.
Another goal was to help reach parents who are isolated from the services the district offers, Clapp said. They may feel more comfortable with the district bringing its classroom to them.
“We knew there were some populations we weren’t reaching,” she added.
Others, like Hot Springs School District No. 1, are offering liaison services to improve communication between preschools, day-cares and the district.
“The kids were coming not kindergarten ready,” liaison Amy Ready said. “The school board decided that we should have a liaison to connect all the early childhood entities to the school district.”
She works with daycare providers and preschools to make sure they know what kindergarten teachers expect from students.
“If they need help in certain areas, they can call,” she said. “I go to different sites and help teach skills. We’re trying to get the entities to collaborate together.”
Costs and access
The price of private preschool programs can be an issue for some, Fremont County’s Clapp said.
Preschool or day-care can cost more than being a full-time student at a community college, she added, and not all families can afford that.
In Laramie County, that holds true. Some private options can run about $100 a month. Others carry price tags from $530 to $665 a month.
At those prices, four months would be more expensive than a semester at Laramie County Community College.
A semester’s worth of full-time tuition for some pre-K programs in Cheyenne can run up to $2,660. Full-time tuition and fees for an in-state LCCC student is $1,368.
In Cheyenne, options like the pre-K program run by LCSD1 and Head Start aren’t open citywide. Instead, they cater to students from low-income families or those who live within the boundaries of certain schools.
Head Start program manager Bonnie Riedel said, “Every child deserves Head Start, regardless of income.
“The children have such a great opportunity not only to learn social skills. They learn different languages, all about nutrition and health. The variety is so large.”
Several groups are working to expand access to families.
In Hot Springs County, several schools have looked at the liaison project to see if it could be tailored to their communities, Ready said.
“There would be a lot more [programs] if there was funding,” she said.
Additionally, there is a statewide conversation about pre-K getting under way, Freeburn-Steinhoff said.
Wyoming Kids First has set a conference Sept. 26-27 at Sheridan College. It is titled “Building Communities Where Children and Families Thrive: The Science of Early Childhood.”
The meeting is aimed at spreading information on topics like early childhood education and development. It is open to the public.
Further information is available at www.wyokidsfirst.org/child-symposium.
Said Freeburn-Steinhoff, “We’re raising awareness about young children and families. It has been a wonderful opportunity to share some of the successes across the state and the good
works that communities are doing.”