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Dianna Webb stepped gingerly between sleeping children Thursday afternoon on the way to her office at Apple Tree Learning Center in Casper.

Soft lullaby music played in the background. Lights were off, the place as quiet as it likely would ever be with dozens of young children present. 

Webb, the learning center's executive director, is one of several local children's advocates eager to see where a new statewide grant funding pre-kindergarten education might lead.

The grant, written into law by a footnote tacked on to the budget bill in the latest legislative session, makes $665,000 available to communities wanting to develop, enhance or expand opportunities for Wyoming's youngest learners between now and 2016.

A community can request up to $50,000 to help ensure its children under the age of 6 are ready to be successful in school. The grant requires a 25 percent match from the community, which can be a school, county, nonprofit or other agency, said Becca Steinhoff, executive director of Wyoming Kids First, the group working with the Wyoming Department of Family Services on gathering applications for the grant.

Language in the grant is intentionally broad to encourage innovation, Steinhoff said.

"The intent really of the Legislature was to give communities an opportunity to identify what needs to happen in those earliest environments, experiences and relationships to ensure that children are ready for school," she said.

The state funding is not meant to step on the toes of private child care providers, mandate preschool for children or enhance any one early childhood care provider.

Webb said she hopes the grant can increase training for families and providers on how to best stimulate early learning in kids and bring more voices to an already active discussion about early childhood education in Casper.

"The prime, optimum time for having the greatest impact on a child's success in school and later in life is in early childhood, before they start kindergarten," Webb said.

Two bills outlining a larger version of the grant failed during this year's legislative session. The same idea was eventually funded through a budget footnote with less money than what was initially proposed, and the funds were directed to the Department of Family Services rather than the state Department of Education.

A public meeting to discuss the grant will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday in room 128B of the Natrona County School District's Central Services Facility, at 970 N. Glenn Road in Casper.

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Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.


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