School district reaches out for a partnership
If you invite them, will they come?
Mt. Pleasant Community School District officials are hoping they will, but some of the leaders of faith-based preschools in the community are not on board — yet.
That’s because they are skeptical, skeptical of the Iowa Department of Education’s possible interference in their preschool format.
“I trust you (Superintendent of Schools Mike Wells), but I don’t trust the state,” said one of the leaders of Sonshine Academy, a preschool under the auspices of Faith Lutheran Church of Mt. Pleasant. “That’s my struggle.”
The Rev. Regan Stoops of First Baptist Church, the church which is launching “Little Bees Preschool” this fall, echoed those sentiments.
“We have to talk about it,” Stoops said when asked if Little Bees would be a partner. “We would lose identity. We started because we wanted to help (the community). I want to read the fine print on faith-based preschools (state DOE guidelines).”
That presents somewhat of a dilemma for the district. Wells knows that and told the 30 people gathered Wednesday morning at an informational meeting on starting a community preschool that for the program to be successful, faith-based preschools are needed to join the flock.
“I would have a hard time running a preschool without faith-based preschools,” Wells said. “You are important to us and we need you.
“I realize the churches (faith-based preschools) probably want to stay where they are and this is fine,” Wells continued. “We want everybody to keep their jobs. Our role is not to tell you your teacher is not good enough. We are about building you up. You would control your people. I don’t want to put people out of business, but funding is important to me.”
Representatives of Grasshopper Green, a preschool located on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College, said they are interested in partnering with the school district in a community preschool.
If the school district did have a preschool, it would receive about $3,000 per student in funding from the state, and Wells said that would mean over $425,000 annually. However, that funding would not be in place for the first year because state funding (when based on school census) always comes one year later. If the preschool were opened to qualifying three-year-olds and five-year-olds (pre-kindergarten), the district could receive as much as $1 million in funding.
“Could you imagine what we could do with a million dollars?” he asked.
Wells has experience with the state’s preschool program during his superintendency in Winterset. The state offered the voluntary program initially about a decade ago. At that time, Mt. Pleasant declined to participate. Mt. Pleasant’s decision, school officials have said in the past, was because they did not want to put existing preschools out of business and the uncertainty of continued state funding. New London was the only other county school district who did not participate.
This spring, the state reopened the window for participation. Originally, the application deadline was in May but because Mt. Pleasant has a new superintendent, the state extended Mt. Pleasant’s deadline until July 31. If the district decides to offer the preschool, it would begin with the 2013-14 school year.
Wells told those in attendance at the district’s central office Wednesday morning that partnering with faith-based preschools has worked in the past. “In Winterset, I developed a preschool with churches. It can work. Our intention is to provide kids with a great preschool so they can be productive adults.”
Another reason for Wells’ desire to start a preschool is that not all Mt. Pleasant four-year-olds are attending preschool. In a survey of 2012-13 kindergarten students, the district learned that 24.65 percent of those students had not attended any preschool.
If the school district were to start a preschool, a preschool also would have to be offered in Salem, Wells said, because Salem is a part of the Mt. Pleasant School District. According to district stats, 43.75 percent of Salem kindergarten students the past school year did not have a preschool experience.
“We want every kid served in our district,” Wells stated. “Last year 40 (actually 36) students were not served.”
One of the state requirements of the preschool is that a licensed teacher give two hours of instruction per day. Another is that the school either have a playground or access to a playground.
“A (state-funded) preschool requires a licensed teacher,” Wells explained, “but just because you don’t have one does not exclude you. We would have to figure it out (access to a licensed teacher), you could still be part of it.”
He noted that the licensed teachers and workers at the preschool would fall under the district’s salary schedule. “That is a huge advantage to be better paid and receive IPERS. The starting teaching salary in the district is $35,000 a year.”
Preschool workers without a teacher’s license would be classified as paraprofessionals, the superintendent said.
There is also no tuition charge for a state-funded preschool, he noted.
Program standards for preschool students, according to Wells, are:
• Program promotes positive relationships between children and adults.
• Program implements a curriculum that promotes learning and development in social, emotional, physical, language and cognitive.
• Program uses developmentally, culturally and linguistically appropriate teaching approaches.
• Program has a systematic, formal and informal assessment approach to provide information on a child’s learning and development.
• Program promotes the nutrition and health of all children and staff and protects them from preventable illness and injury.
Wells said one of the biggest obstacle for families on deciding whether or not to send their children to preschool is poverty. “We must figure out a plan for transportation, language differences and costs (to the school district),” he noted.
If the district were to provide a preschool the coming school term, it could not offer transportation, he remarked. “We would have to figure out transportation, but we could not do it during the upcoming school year. We have to figure out a transportation plan for our neediest families. Whatever it takes to get children to and from our program, we must do.”
During the informal meeting, a community preschool in one site and a wrap-around program (after-school program for preschool and other students) were briefly discussed but only as possible ideas.
Wells “courted” the faith-based preschools during much of the meeting, since the majority of district preschoolers attend such centers.
“I am a Christian and I do not check my faith at the door when I enter into the public school. Everything I do as a teacher reflects who I am and what my religious beliefs are,” Wells told the gathering. “We want our faith-based preschools to partner with us to create a seamless preschool program. We will not interfere with your religious instruction and will classify it as ‘outside the preschool day.’ We must assure a quality preschool curriculum (is provided) and meet the requirements of the state, but there would be a great deal of flexibility in how that is accomplished.”
A board, comprised of representatives of the current preschools, would govern the preschool, he said. “The school district is a partner, but not the dominant entity in this conversation. The school district would have to handle the money…There is a need in the community for this. I think the key will be getting the program up to speed. We’re more than willing to make it work,” Wells concluded.