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LAUNCH Flagstaff approached both the Flagstaff City Council and the Coconino County Board of Supervisors Tuesday with one central message: the community needs more quality preschool options.

To advance world class education, which is LAUNCH's stated mission, the organization is seeking supporters for a pilot program to improve preschool education within Flagstaff Unified School District boundaries by providing full-day, year-round preschool to 4-year-olds from low-income families.

These are the children who fall in the gap between federally funded and private schools either because of space or financial limitations, Paul Kulpinski, partnership director of LAUNCH, said.

“There are a lot of really excellent programs in operation, but without some coordinated infrastructure at the community level, we have some gaps,” Kulpinski said.

The report revealed children from low-income families enter kindergarten 14 months behind their peers in pre-literacy skills and that only 45 percent of Flagstaff 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood programming. Capacity plays a role in this percentage because, in the Flagstaff area, there are 2.6 children per each space of existing capacity.

Kulpinski said this report is just the start of a conversation on improving preschool education in Flagstaff. He is already working on updates to the report – scheduled to be released to the public this week – using feedback from the council and supervisors.

LAUNCH has been working on this report since September, when it met with representatives from the City of Tempe to discuss Tempe PRE, a two-year preschool pilot program that started in 2017 for children at or below the 200 percent poverty level.

The report explained, “The City of Tempe provides a relevant example of what might be done in a partnership between educators and local governments.”

With Tempe PRE as a guide, LAUNCH and various local educational partners used census data to determine that there are currently more than 100 eligible children not served in the FUSD boundary area. Based on data from the City of Tempe and feedback from the council and supervisors, to accommodate the approximately 80 students likely to participate, Flagstaff would need at least four additional classrooms.

The program would create these new classrooms using Quality First’s guidelines for four- or five-star-rated preschool classrooms. As such, they would require at least one certified teacher, an assistant teacher and a maximum of 18 students. The report currently states that remodeling classrooms would occur from July to December 2019, with the first classes to begin in January 2020.

“Children are being lost every year we wait, so we really can’t afford to wait much longer,” Kulpinski told the Supervisors.

BENEFITS

The benefits of more accessible, quality preschool extend beyond more educated children, Tuesday’s presenters said.

In addition to increased school readiness, educational attainment and earning potential, quality preschool can improve the health and well-being of these children – and their community.

Preschool involvement assists in a child’s development of social and emotional skills, said Robert Kelty, principal of Puente de Hozho Elementary. Knowing how to play and interact with peers is just as meaningful to schools as early literacy skills, he said.

Steve Peru, president of the United Way of Northern Arizona, described the program would even help parents achieve their own goals.

“High quality preschool can also help improve family and parenting skills, in addition to the availability of parents to work or invest in personal development during the day,” he said.

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CHALLENGES

Both the city and county expressed their support of this program; however, a project of this scale, even in its planning stages, is full of challenges, including funding and expansiveness, that must be considered before financial support can be allocated.

At an estimated $750,000 per year to maintain these new preschool classrooms and curriculums, cost is a huge factor to success. LAUNCH has been approaching entities like the city and county to engage them in the conversation; Kulpinski says LAUNCH will accept financial contributions of any amount, based on an organization’s ability and willingness to participate.

“In the process of the conversations, participation is organically identified,” he said. “It then becomes an investment that is willingly made, rather than coming from compliance with a request.”

Although these costs seem high at first, the report suggests that the long-term return on investment would range from $8.60 to $16 per dollar invested, due to a more educated workforce with the potential for higher incomes.

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Mayor Coral Evans described that, from the city’s perspective, investing in education can be a preventative effort in the social justice area.

“Traditionally, education has not been a city role, but the issues that are created by the lack of education and the lack of access to education usually fall on the city.”

To meet the financial needs of this program will require overwhelming community support, another potential challenge.

Kulpinski said a consensus among community members that quality preschool is a priority is essential.

But the definition of the community itself was also a concern. Supervisors noted that schools throughout the county, not just those within the city, are in need of similar resources.

Supervisor Matt Ryan said, “The concept of building a pilot is good and yet we also have the broader community to think about. … The needs go beyond Flag Unified's boundaries.”

COMMUNITY-WIDE SUPPORT

Peru described the program as the perfect collective impact project because every community member will have a role to play in its success.

A variety of organizations already came together to create the initial report, including local academic institutions, the AZ Community Foundation of Flagstaff, Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, the NARBHA Institute and the Wharton Foundation.

Kulpinski said, “It’s a community-owned effort, rather than one organization being the owner of it. There is shared collaboration, shared accountability and shared success.”

Though these presentations are just a starting point, LAUNCH still has much to do if the first steps, classroom remodels, are to begin in July as scheduled.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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