More low-income Tri-City families will be able to send their young children to preschool this fall, thanks to about $1.4 million from the state.
Almost 150 new preschool slots will be available in the Pasco, Kiona-Benton City, Finley, North Franklin and Columbia-Burbank school districts.
The new slots are part of a statewide expansion of the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, or ECEAP. All will be for full-day programs and will be the first such free preschool offerings in some of the districts.
"It's exciting," said Joe Lloyd, Ki-Be's grants manager, of his district's 36 preschool slots.
The Kennewick and Richland school districts already offer a couple hundred ECEAP slots. Benton-Franklin Head Start offers similar preschool services based primarily on federal financial support.
The Legislature allocated about $13 million to add 1,350 ECEAP slots for the 2014-15 school year as part of an ongoing effort to serve all eligible children by 2019. The state Department of Early Learning received 35 applications from providers, such as school or education service districts, for the new slots.
"This is an exciting opportunity to provide high quality and longer-day services to our most at-risk kids," said Bette Hyde, the department's director, in a news release.
State officials specifically targeted rural communities and communities with sizable Native American populations in the expansion, as well as areas where the demand for preschool services far outstrips availability.
Providers wanting to provide a full-day program -- six hours a day during the school year -- rather than half-day programs where kids are only in a classroom for a minimum of 2.5 hours also received preference.
Ki-Be received about $344,000 to begin its preschool. The district has a developmental preschool for young children with special needs but there are between 70 and 80 other children who also need preschool but their families can't afford it.
Education Service District 123 will use more than $1 million from the state to create 110 slots in the Pasco, Finley, North Franklin and Columbia. Each district will be receiving between 20 and 40 slots.
The ESD had worked toward bringing in early childhood education efforts as part of its broader mission for several years, said JoAnn Henderson, head of teaching and learning. That included running smaller programs that affected only one or two schools at a time.
"There's just been such a good response to it that we needed to look for ways to tie it all together," she said, adding that it's crucial the ESD fill the slots it was given so they aren't reassigned elsewhere.
Despite the influx, not all eligible children will be served in the Tri-Cities even with the expansion of low-income preschool services. The state serves less than half of all children who fall under ECEAP's income guidelines and providers have noted that they often have hundreds on waiting lists.
"This is probably a drop in the bucket for the number of kids out there," Henderson said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald