When Webster County Schools leaders look at their district, they’re not seeing preschool through grade 12, but a birth through grade 12 system.
That’s been made possible in part through the district’s Alpha Academy day care centers at two elementary schools, run in conjunction with Audubon Area Head Start.
“We have reshaped what’s going on with early childhood in Webster County schools,” Superintendent Rachel Yarbrough said. “It’s not just K-12 for us anymore. We are just as committed to what’s happening in Alpha Academy as we are in what’s happening in high school algebra.”
The two day care centers, licensed to Webster County Schools and staffed by Head Start employees, are located at Providence and Sebree elementaries. Each has two classrooms outfitted for day care and early learning.
They are filling a different kind of gap, said Webster County school board Vice Chairman Mickey Dunbar.
“I’m hearing nothing but positive things in the community,” he said. “We’re excited we’re able to fill a need to bridge that gap there from birth to preschool that a lot of parents can’t fill themselves and can’t afford it, and we in the school system are able to do that. I think it’s just another way to show the community that the school system cares and is doing everything within its power to meet the needs out there with the funding that we have.”
Toddler Addyson Poe plays with a fire truck while Liam Davis investigates a toy during
a playtime at Webster County School’s Alpha Academy at Providence Elementary.
There are few day care options for parents in Webster County, Dunbar added. “With family situations and two-parent households working and being in a small rural community, there are not a lot of child care opportunities but this is one we can provide and it’s a need,” he said.
The new child care centers, for infants and toddlers ages six weeks to 3 years, opened this school year. Each classroom can house eight children, with a head teacher and two teacher associates who are employees of Head Start. Half the slots are income-based and the other are private pay, but preference is given to the children of teen mothers, aimed at keeping them in school. Parents must be either employed or attending school.
The classrooms incorporate Early Head Start in conjunction with child care, which increases the level of services to the children and their families, said Peggy Grant, Head Start director for Audubon Area Community Services Inc. The day care slots are funded by a five-year, renewable federal grant.
“We do developmental screens on children according to their cognitive age and we also do actual and ongoing educational assessment on the child, to make sure they’re meeting the milestones that they need to meet that are age and developmentally appropriate,” linking them to services if they aren’t, she said. Head Start also works with the families on their child’s health and educational needs.
Grant’s agency has similar programs set up in other area school districts, including Crittenden, Ohio and Caldwell counties.
Webster County’s partnership with Head Start also includes a full-day child development center for ages 3-5 that operates year-round at Sebree Elementary, plus the regular, half-day blended preschool program in two classrooms.
That’s not all
The Alpha Academy is just part of the district’s plan to sharpen its focus on early childhood education.
“We’re not reaching enough of our infants, toddlers and certainly our preschool children, which impacts our kindergarten readiness,” said Kim Saalwaechter, director of special education and early childhood education for Webster County Schools. “Based on our early childhood data that comes from the governor’s office, they say we have lots more infants and toddlers out there than we’re reaching and we have more 3- to 5-year-olds than we’re reaching in our blended program.”
The district is working on several fronts to get the word out to families and to get information out earlier, advertising through the preschool classrooms in hopes of reaching younger siblings, in the local newspaper, social media and the district’s website.
Last summer, the district began to “refocus” the role of family resource center coordinators, Yarbrough said, using their opportunities to connect with families. They were encouraged to identify prospects among 3- and 4-year-old classrooms in vacation Bible schools and to visit homes of students with younger siblings. At preschool screenings, the resource center coordinators set up shop with readiness information and school supplies.
“We just really gave them more of a charge to focus on identifying those families, building a positive relationship with them,” Yarbrough said.
Kindergarten registration also got a boost last year, with the district handing out readiness packets to parents, followed by literacy and math nights in the spring, which featured literacy and math activities in addition to the traditional open house fare.
The Webster County Early Childhood Council also sponsored a half-day kindergarten “jump start” to familiarize incoming students with their school and one elementary school has received a Born Learning grant to work with parents of young children.
The timing of the district’s outreach for some early childhood programs also was changed. Screening will begin earlier – in March – for the regular blended preschool program, rather than waiting until late spring or summer, when it may be harder to reach parents.