District to expand preschool with opening of new Franklin Elementary

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Principal Rhonda Dunham leads a tour to show some of the features of the new Franklin Elementary School on Tuesday in Cape Girardeau. Work is on schedule for the school to be ready for students at the start of the school year. More pictures from the tour are in a gallery at semissourian.com. (ADAM VOGLER)

Franklin Elementary School will welcome a new age group of students this fall when preschoolers join ranks and access to early childhood education makes an advance in the Cape Girardeau School District. Similar progress growing preschool programs in the Jackson School District should take place within the next few years when a new elementary is complete.

The new Franklin Elementary, opening in August, will offer a morning and an afternoon preschool class for 30 to 35 students, bringing the number for the school district up to about 150.

The growth of preschool in the local districts and in schools elsewhere in Missouri may seem unlikely, considering state funding for early childhood education just took a hit during the budget process. But there are ways to make it happen, say local administrators, along with a commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"There is no easy place to make cuts when it comes to education," said Deena Ring, special services coordinator in the Cape Girardeau School District, on why she said she has never been critical of slashes to state funding that promotes access to early childhood-related grant programs and services, such as the Missouri Preschool Program and Parents as Teachers.

Cape Girardeau and Jackson aren't among the 150-plus districts in Missouri receiving grant money through the Missouri Preschool Project, although the program is a main contributor to many public schools now being able to run preschool programs. If the program hadn't been able to keep funding schools, around 4,000 children statewide could have lost opportunities to attend preschool.

A fight in the state legislature over funding for the Missouri Preschool Project ended in the spring with preschools in good standing receiving less state funds in the coming year, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The school districts and some privately-owned preschools will get up to 75 percent of funding they received in prior years.

Kathy Thornburg, assistant commissioner of the Office of Early and Extended Learning for the department, said the money that was cut by legislators would have helped the Missouri Preschool Project fund about 20 more programs -- which is why she is happy to see some school districts figuring out other options to increase preschool programming despite an overall impression that it can't happen because of funding.

"School boards and district superintendents are seeing the need for preschool, and so some are finding monies in their communities, some are braiding funding with Head Starts or getting it other ways," Thornburg said.

Some school districts set on increasing preschool enrollments have used "braided or blended funding," that is, money coming from several sources, or have made some wiggle room in the regular district budget to fund preschool programs. Blended funding, which is used in the Jackson School District, comes from federal and some state government sources with flexibility allowed, and from tuition parents pay. Cape Girardeau has budgeted funds for its preschool program, which does not charge tuition, by closely watching dollars for several years, Ring said. Examples of braided funding can also be seen with Missouri Preschool Project funds. Other common funding sources include federal Title I dollars, which are designated for students at risk of failing school and living in poverty, some government-designated funds for special education students and local contributions.

Ring said she sees "a lot of people standing up and saying they can make a difference," even though it doesn't seem the money to do it is there.

"For us, it's worth it, because we know doing this really is going to make a difference in the future," she said of the district's decision to keep growing its preschool programs. Cape Girardeau will serve around 150 students in four schools in the coming school year. Jackson's programs normally serve around 250 students. Both districts have had lengthy waiting lists in recent years.

Thornburg said more districts making efforts to spend on early childhood education seems to be reflecting a developing attitude that there is merit to quality preschool programs.

Contributions in the form of money and services from local agencies help fund some preschool programs in school districts throughout the state. Partnerships are also causing schools to help improve private community-based preschool programs' quality, Thornburg said, and she hopes to see those efforts extend into the future.

Competition between public schools and private daycares or preschools does exist, she said, but an ultimate goal should be to get all programs, regardless of sponsors, to a high quality so more children will be ready to enter kindergarten.

Enrollment in government-funded preschool programs has grown over the past decade, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, but many states have expanded enrollment without maintaining quality.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

215 N. Louisiana St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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