“It’s our torch to carry now.”
— By Margie Doyle —
“We can’t wait around,” Joe Cohen says, “We can do something now for our community and we will.”
Cohen is speaking of the Early Childhood Education Initiative that is now underway, beginning a three-year “demonstration project” that will make early childhood preschool education accessible to all Orcas Island children and increase the quality of early childhood education all children on Orcas receive.
The Early Childhood Education Initiative will operate out of the four Orcas preschools — Salmonberry School, Children’s House, Kaleidoscope Childcare Center and the Orcas Montessori School. The Executive Directors of each of the schools have developed a collaborative, trusting dynamic to:
• Increase the accessibility of every Orcas Child to the schools for the minimum threshold of 12 hours;
• Retain teachers by providing the incentives and opportunities to earn their credentials that merit pay increases to $14/hr.
This year, some of the funding is going to increase pay as teachers complete steps in the certification process. “The schools realize they have to take over the pay increase obligation,” says Cohen. “We want to provide the incentive.”
Most island preschool teachers plan to attend the Child Development classes offered online by Bellingham Technical College. The state is also offering “heavy subsidies,” Cohen says. He gives “huge credit” to Amber Paulsen, director of Kaleidoscope, for arranging the evaluator to come to the island for periodic teacher evaluations, rather than having the many teachers travel to Bellingham for the evaluations. Cohen says that Paulsen also researched further subsidies for those educators who are on food assistance programs.
Next year, the funders plan to increase the contributions towards the teachers’ credentials and towards additional hours for the children to attend the preschools.
Education consultant (and musician) Jim Connell developed and facilitated a process for the educators to identify students most in need, and former Children’s House Board President and pediatrician Dale Heisinger did extensive research that shows the threshold for educational preparation and improvement is 12 hours per week.
The educators have worked together to determine the need in each school and to share and then prioritize those needs across schools. “We want to leave the educators in each school in control of how the funds for accessibility are allocated to support increased access beyond the 12-hour per week threshold, because they’re the ones closest to the scenario — the kids and parents — so they’re the ones who nominate the children for support,” says Cohen.
“We’re not in the business of micromanaging. We’re not telling the schools what to do, but the initiative’s goal is to provide for the sponsored child’s learning success, first by increasing access and then by improving quality.”
Parental involvement is critical to the program’s sustainability, the initiative funders say. “It matters that their child is involved in preschool and that they see it as a good thing for their child. We are dependent on parents for the success of this initiative.”
“Our project is:
• a community investment to “top off” the efforts of local preschools to achieve the threshold of 12 hours per week of education for every child;
• a forum to enable the preschools to collectively improve their practices and strengthen their programs;
• a commitment to maintain choice in early childhood education;
• a model to learn about and communicate methods for improving early childhood education.”
Cohen says the longer-term issues are how do we sustain the investment to ensure this opportunity for all students permanently? While the children benefit from the program, the schools have the opportunity to ramp up their engagement with parents and the community. Even if additional state or federal funds are provided to increase access and quality, long-term dollars will still need to come from school fundraising, parent tuition and community-based “investment” dollars. Cohen says the group hopes to engage the rest of the community in scholarship funding to support early education hours for each child who needs the support.
.”This work is much bigger than I first thought,” says Cohen. “I want to give credit to Bob Henigson. Ten years ago at a Community Foundation retreat about putting significant funding to really good use; Bob inspired us all to think big. He always thought a little bigger than anyone else in the room.”
“In my last conversation with Bob, late last year, he emphasized that this program was to be all about inclusiveness, and the breadth of education needs in the community. He was resolute about doing the best we can for every child on Orcas.
“It’s our torch to carry now.”
Thanks to Jim Connell