RANCHESTER — The importance of early childhood education, or some type of quality preschool experience, has been highlighted in recent years by educators and researchers at the national level. One example of just how much of a different it makes can be measured in Ranchester.
The Tongue River Child’s Place had been in operation for decades but within the last five years has undergone a transformative process that included forging a closer partnership with Sheridan County School District 1. By applying known strategies to increase readiness to enter formal school, increasingly more young learners in the valley are beginning their academic careers more prepared than ever.
TRCP Executive Director Kami Smith said calculated changes started in 2015 when the center, along with the school district, adopted a Professional Learning Communities method to facilitate collaborative learning at all educational levels. While the day care and preschool always had a working relationship with the school district that included sharing building space, the interaction has grown to become more involved and intentional.
“We met with teachers in the school district and talked about exactly what they were seeing in their incoming kindergarteners and what they would like to see that we should work on,” Smith said, pointing out that today’s kindergarten curriculum is more rigorous than it has been in generations past.
“The No. 1 thing we have heard from them had to do with social/emotional skills. We want to have those kids be able to be good friends, to sit down and listen to a story, and to solve their own problems. That’s where we have really been concentrating and I think that’s where we have seen so much growth,” Smith said.
To better prepare young learners for kindergarten, TRCP, which is the only daycare and preschool serving Ranchester, Dayton, Parkman and rural areas north of Sheridan, started teaching the same pyramid problem-solving technique used in the public schools.
“It sets them up with the same language, same rules, and same solution kit,” Smith said.
On the other side of the collaboration, the school district brought in a staff member to maintain a strong bridge between preschool and kindergarten. SCSD1 Early Childhood Liaison Kendra Barney said there’s no doubt kindergarteners are starting their academic careers more prepared than ever.
“We have been able to build an awesome team,” Barney said. “It has worked very well to have all our teachers on the same page.”
“In the past, there were a lot of kids showing up to kindergarten not ready,” Smith agreed.
Barney said now that the program is in full swing, there are measurable results.
Of the 70 children that attended the PLC-driven preschool program, only three of them were recommended for a behavior referral. This year’s numbers represent a significant decline in behavior-related issues experienced by incoming kindergarteners.
In addition to streamlined teaching, another big change that has occurred within TRCP is the effort to reach eligible children in the valley and ensure they are able to use the program.
“Being a nonprofit, there were a lot of years we struggled financially,” Smith said, indicating TRCP has been able to get more firm financial footing, which has likely increased confidence with community members. “It’s hard because we want to keep it affordable, but we want to pay our staff enough that we have competent people, keep our doors open, make sure we are serving the community well, and offer a lot of experiences for the kids.”
Smith said recent access to state grants has enabled continuing education for teachers and subsidized enrollment fees for families. Last year, scholarships totaled $9,000.
“Center-wide, 41% of our kids qualify for free or reduced services,” she said. “At the preschool level, it’s 56%.”
Families receiving scholarships still pay at least some monthly fee and adhere to an attendance policy, Smith explained.
“We feel like that buy-in on their part is important for them to realize the value of what they’re getting,” Smith said, adding that she feels confident the center could accommodate additional children in need of scholarships.
“Our goal is to reach every kid in the valley so they know we are here,” she said. “Our philosophy is even if we have to pound on the doors of our neighbors and get them a scholarship, we don’t want to turn anyone away.”
Barney said the reach of the TRCP is almost where it needs to be, indicating that when kindergarten started this year, there were only five students that had not had previous contact with the community’s early childhood education services.
Educators at the elementary level resoundingly recognize the need and importance for quality early childhood education programs. While a public, universal preschool program is still a distant goal, the community efforts in Ranchester and the surrounding areas are the next best thing.
By employing the most functional curriculum possible and harnessing financial resources to make preschool available to all students, TRCP is setting up kids for academic readiness.
Article by Tracee Davis
for The Sheridan Press