Preschool options for Tri-City low-income families possible

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMarch 22, 2014 

Low-income families in the Tri-Cities could have more opportunities for their children to attend full-day preschool next fall, though it's unknown whether school districts or private contractors will provide the space.

State lawmakers set aside about $13 million so an additional 1,350 children across the state could attend preschool. But the state wants those new preschoolers in full-day programs, instead of half day or less.

That means some providers will forgo those spots or look for private preschools to provide them.

"We're still exploring (options)," said Bonnie Wickler, assistant director of special programs for the Richland School District.

State officials have wanted to accommodate more children in the program. Fewer than 40 percent of Washington's low-income 3- and 4-year-olds are served by the state's Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, or ECEAP, or the federally funded Head Start program.

But state early learning officials also want kids to have more hours in the classroom. Currently, ECEAP programs must offer at least 2.5 hours of preschool for nine months out of the year. The new slots are earmarked as providing full-day preschool, such as a six hours per day on a school year calendar or as much as 10 hours a day year round.

Agencies operating ECEAP programs are eligible to apply for the new slots but the state wants to get the biggest bang for its buck, said Amy Blondin, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Early Learning. That means rural communities or those with large Native American populations and areas where demand for subsidized preschool far outstrips current programs will receive preference.

"Anybody who offers preschool can apply for this money," Blondin said. "We're trying to keep our minds open."

Offering full-day preschool could be a challenge for preschool providers. The Kennewick School District oversees several ECEAP programs but its administrators are only looking to bring in about 20 more preschoolers as part of a half-day program, said Jack Anderson, Kennewick's director of federal projects.

The district has had success with its model, he said, but there's also a premium on classroom space. A full-day program would mean fewer students would receive services as it would take up more space than a half-day program.

Benton Franklin Head Start, which runs preschool programs throughout the Tri-Cities, won't pursue any of the funding, said Executive Director Jim Skucy.

The federal program works closely with its state counterpart and has offered ECEAP slots before. But factors such as changes to administration and funding, and lingering effects of last year's federal sequestration, mean Head Start isn't in a position to take on more, though the need is there, Skucy said.

"There are a lot of unserved children in the community," he said.

The Richland School District has received a grant for 36 full-day preschool slots, Wickler said, and the district is investigating whether that's something it can handle within its own program or could contract to another provider. However, meetings with local preschool providers have yielded little interest, particularly when it comes to offering slots in the fall.

"We may still apply for extra slots but those would be half-day," Wickler said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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