Feb 23, 2017

High Quality PreK Levels The Playing Field For Kids In Caledonia County

Every child deserves an equal chance in life. Vermont’s universal pre-K law, known as Act 166, is one important way we can ensure young children get the quality early experiences they need for future success in school, in relationships and in life.

Like many other places in Vermont, St. Johnsbury is struggling with opiate addiction and poverty. More than 35% of Caledonia County families live under 200% of the poverty line, and St. Johnsbury’s substance abuse program has seen the number of clients for drug addiction treatment programs increase from 75 to 248 in a little over a year. What’s even more alarming is that 111 of those 248 individuals have children under the age of 7.

As the early education coordinator for the St. Johnsbury School District, I firmly believe that we must give all children in our community an opportunity to succeed regardless of their home life. Because 90% of the brain is developed by age 5, that means providing the children with quality experiences before they enter kindergarten.

That’s why our district partnered with private child care centers to form the St. Johnsbury Early Education Collaborative (EEC). Together, we’ve focused on developing a network of pre-K programs in our community. We’re working hard to build a solid bridge from preschool to kindergarten. Every month, we meet to discuss the needs in the school and community and to plan trainings centered around those needs. For example, we held a training on how to help children manage their emotions through art, and we recently planned a training on self-care to ensure that teachers know how to take care of themselves so they can be better teachers for the children.

We began the EEC with two part-time classrooms in the school and a partnership with one private center, serving a total of 75 children. With the implementation of Act 166, which provides 10 hours a week of free pre-K to all three-, four- and five-year-olds in Vermont, we expanded. Now, the EEC is comprised of teachers from eight child care centers serving 104 pre-K children. We hope to be able to partner with home providers in the future.

A strength of Act 166 is our state’s mixed delivery system, meaning both school districts and private providers can offer pre-K. The mixed delivery system empowers school districts like ours and private child care providers to partner together, giving parents more options and resulting in more children accessing high-quality pre-K.

Universal pre-K through Act 166 has been beneficial for our children and families in many ways. I recently talked to a mom who got laid off in the winter and would have needed to pull her son out of preschool due to the loss of income if it weren’t for Act 166. The universal pre-K law allowed this mom to continue sending her son to preschool three mornings each week.

Act 166 has also helped our teachers. Betsy Bailey, director and owner of Little Dippers Doodle Children’s Center, is one of the private providers participating in the EEC. Betsy says that her partnership with school-based programs under Act 166 helps her program afford to continue providing high-quality care.

Ultimately, children benefit the most from the strong partnerships between schools and private pre-K programs within the EEC. Kindergarten teachers have visited pre-K programs to observe children to see what in the environment works for them and we’ve had pre-K teachers come into the kindergarten classroom to help children transition.

Vermont made the right decision by choosing to invest in universal pre-K. The partnerships with private providers in St. Johnsbury, which we’ve been able to expand under Act 166, are crucially important to addressing Vermont’s shortage of high-quality, affordable early care and learning programs.

While there’s still much work to be done to ensure all our children get a strong start, I’m encouraged by the progress I’ve been privileged to witness through the efforts of the dedicated early childhood professionals who make up the St. Johnsbury Early Education Collaborative.

Michelle Fox is the early education coordinator for the St. Johnsbury School District.

Click here to read this article on the Caledonian Record website. 

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