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Preschool for Flagstaff's low-income families on the way
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Preschool for Flagstaff's low-income families on the way

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Preschoolers Explore Gardening

Carter Stack, 5, left, Henry Gregar, 4, center, and Emma Cutshall, 5, explore a garden sensory box in their pre-kindergarten classroom at the Pinecone Preschool in this May 2019 file photo.

Flagstaff 4-year-olds from low-income families will be eligible for free, full-day, year-round preschool classes this fall.

The three-year pilot program proposed by LAUNCH Flagstaff a year ago will offer quality preschool to children whose families are between 101 and 250% of the federal poverty level, said Paul Kulpinski, partnership director of LAUNCH, in a presentation to the Flagstaff Unified School District governing board Tuesday.

He estimated there are between 230 and 260 children who would qualify.

Although initially scheduled to seat the first students this month, an updated timeline has now scheduled the first two classes to begin at FUSD sites in August. Teachers and aides will be hired in March and families can begin enrolling in May, the timeline shows. Details on the locations of the two classes have not yet been selected.

The goal of the program is to serve the children who fall in the gap between federally funded and private schools. As referenced in a feasibility report prepared by LAUNCH last year, in the Flagstaff area only 45% of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood programs. Nationally, children who attend high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and be successful in their careers. On average, children from low-income families enter kindergarten 14 months behind their peers in pre-literacy skills.

“Over the next three years, we want to demonstrate locally that this an effective way to raise the bar and increase the access to what is high quality and also elevate the profession of early childhood education,” Kulpinski said.

By the end of the pilot, the goal is to have five classes in operation. To meet local demand, though, the program would need at least eight classrooms — an area for future expansion beyond the pilot, the report stated.

In addition to numerous organizations contributing funding or services to the project, since the initial proposal of the pilot program, the Association for Supportive Child Care, which has a satellite office in Flagstaff, joined LAUNCH to lead the expansion.

Rebecca Cirzan, the organization’s Northern Arizona Regional Lead, is serving as coordinator of the implementation and said the program can also include other underserved children, like those with special needs or whose families are experiencing homelessness or are in the care of the Department of Child Safety.

Ideally, Cirzan said the efforts to improve preschool quality with this expansion would affect all early childhood education in the region.

“Along the way we are providing [teachers] the same professional development and coaching so that when we are ready to scale and be long-term, they are prepared and ready to go,” Cirzan said.

Beyond education, Cirzan said she also hopes to use the program to connect families to support services in the community.

Statewide support

The preschool expansion pilot is projected to cost just over $850,000 per year to maintain the five total preschool classrooms and curriculums. As of the presentation this week, donors including FUSD, the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County have contributed about $766,000.

Kulpinski said the group is now working with statewide philanthropic sources for more funding. By the end of the pilot, he expects increasing voter and legislator focus on education to prompt state resources that will help sustain the program.

According to a recent statewide survey conducted by Expect More Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education advocacy group, education was ranked by Arizona voters as the state’s top state issue for the fifth year in a row, followed by immigration/border issues and health care. Within Congressional District 1, which includes all of Coconino County, 82% of voters agreed education at all levels — from early learning through universities — is in need of additional investments.

Like the goal of the preschool expansion in Flagstaff, Expect More Arizona, which tracks the state’s educational progress, said, though progress has occurred in other areas, Arizona is not doing enough to address the needs of diverse student populations, including those in poverty.

In a different metric, Expect More Arizona reported only 22% of the state’s 3- and 4-year-old children are enrolled in quality early learning programs. The goal is to increase the percentage to 45% by 2030.

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

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