Parents of children attending four year old preschool classes in La Porte City and Dysart next school year have a pleasant surprise waiting for them when they register their children for school. Thanks to the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, the tuition bite on their wallet will be a whole lot smaller than in previous years. Truth be told, there will be no tuition bite at all, as the Union Community School District, working in collaboration with the preschool boards of the La Porte City Preschool and Dysart’s Raggedy Ann and Andy Preschool, will begin receiving state aid for students enrolled in four year old preschool programs next school year.

The Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program dates back to the 2007-08 school year, when just over 5,000 students in the state were enrolled. By the 2013-14 school year, the number of children served by the program had risen to nearly 22,000, and a funding mechanism, similar to the state aid formula used to fund K-12 education, was established.

Area patrons have long been satisfied with the quality of private preschool offerings available in La Porte City and Dysart. Both programs can trace their origins back to the 1970s, having served their respective communities for nearly 40 years.That is why the district initially adopted a wait-and-see approach when the Voluntary Preschool Program was launched eight years ago.

David Hill, Dysart-Geneseo Elementary School Principal, and one of the primary authors of Union’s Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program application, explained one of the overriding concerns that has guided the district’s decision-making process as it relates to preschool programs:

“When you have good, quality private preschools in your town, you don’t want to start your own program and drive them out of business,” he said.

As Union school administrators researched the components of the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, they learned that state funding would be tied directly to several strict standards. Included among them:

A licensed teacher – a teacher licensed in early childhood, responsible for designing and implementing an effective learning environment.
A minimum of 10 hours of quality preschool instruction time per week
Community Collaboration – preschool programs must incorporate family involvement through activities such as conferences, home visits and/or family nights.
High program standards – schools must use one of three approved sets of program standards
High learning standards – educational programs must have curriculum and assessments that enhance and measure student learning
Appropriate adult-child ratio – an adult-child ratio of 1:10 and a maximum group size of 20
Hill noted that school officials realized early on that the school district and the Preschool Boards in Dysart and La Porte City would have to work collaboratively to achieve the goal of obtaining state funding for their preschool programs. Construction projects at both district elementary schools soon served notice that the effort to strengthen early childhood education in both communities was truly a shared belief. In Dysart, a remodeling project at D-G Elementary School gutted two classrooms and, starting from scratch, the space was transformed into one classroom designed specifically to meet the needs of the preschoolers. A similar transformation took place at La Porte City Elementary School, where the preschool’s portable classroom on the school grounds was taken down to make room for an addition that now serves as the preschool’s new home. Throughout the construction process, input from the local preschool staff and board members was proffered so that the spaces created for each program would meet the specific needs of their students.

“I was able to meet with the architects several times and say what I needed in the classroom,” said Donna Coulter, La Porte City Preschool instructor, recalling the planning sessions that took place prior to the construction of the preschool classroom.

When construction of the new classrooms were completed in 2010, the school district had achieved its goal of providing high-quality facilities for both preschool programs. A few years later, the district revisited the Voluntary Preschool Program following the resignation of Dysart’s preschool teacher in 2014. The Raggedy Ann and Andy Preschool Board, faced with the challenge of hiring a new teacher, wanted to keep tuition low and continue to meet the needs of the families they served. With both preschools enjoying comparable facilities, the consensus of the school district and both preschool boards and was to move forward with the Voluntary Preschool Program application.

The hiring of Katy Wilson, a licensed teacher with an extensive background in early childhood education, assured the Dysart Preschool Board their program would meet the state standard for teacher licensure. When the Board also made changes to increase the number of hours four year old students would attend school in Dysart, another important state standard had been addressed.

In addition to the changes that have been made in the Dysart preschool program, Wilson has implemented a new, research-based curriculum for her students, one of the two most commonly used educational programs by schools in the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program. It’s also the same curriculum Donna Coulter has been teaching since 2011. Coulter was introduced to the new curriculum through her contact with an early childhood consultant at Area Education Agency 267 in Cedar Falls.

The similarity in curriculum and the collaborative relationship the two preschool programs enjoy has made the district’s implementation of the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program standards much easier to manage.
As she completes her first full year teaching in Dysart, Wilson is particularly pleased with the relationship the two preschool programs continue to enjoy, as well as the level of involvement and support she has received from the community.

“Donna [Coulter] and I have worked together a lot this school year. We’ve had a lot of discussion and work time together,” she stated.

“It’s been great. Everybody has been very supportive. We have excellent parent participation with our program. They’re supportive and very willing to help out. 18 students [enrolled] is an indicator of the program’s support. It’s a good sign of keeping our kids here,” she added.

The district’s acceptance into the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for the 2014-15 school year did not come with any dollars attached. Year one of the program is designed to give schools time to ensure all required criteria of the program are being met. As an example, Hill said Union is currently working to make sure proper fencing is installed around the preschool playground equipment, a job that will be completed in the coming months.

State funding for Union’s preschool programs will begin in the 2015-16 school year. Because the state formula uses student enrollment figures from the previous school year, Union will receive around $3,000 for each four year old student counted at the two district elementary schools during the 2014-15 school year. Most of that money will be funneled directly to the preschools, who can receive it as contracted service providers for the district, despite their status as private preschools. Those state aid dollars, however, can only be used for the four year old preschool programs, which is why both preschools must continue to charge tuition for their three year old students. A small portion (5%) of state aid dollars can be used for administrative costs related to the programs. Hill noted the school district does not charge either preschool for rent, but can be reimbursed for such services as the utilities and custodial supplies used to support them.

In addition to the state funding the district will receive for preschool, the State Department of Education will send a team to assess Union’s preschool programs. The visit, which could come as soon as September, will check Union’s compliance with the program’s standards and objectives.

Registration for 2015-16 three and four year old preschool students will take at La Porte City and Dysart-Geneseo Elementary Schools on May 4. Registration at D-G Elementary will take place from 5-7 PM, with La Porte City’s registration taking place 7-8 PM. And while parents of four year old students won’t have to make any tuition payments in the coming year, the preschool boards in La Porte City and Dysart will continue to offer scholarship opportunities for families who qualify.

“We try to make it possible for anyone who wants to be here,” Coulter said.
It’s a philosophy both schools in Dysart and La Porte City strive to maintain- the delivery of a high quality education in a caring, supportive environment.