COQUILLE — Pre-kindergarten is the first step toward retaining students and ensuring a successful academic career, school officials say.
This fall, the Coquille School District became the second district in the state to implement a pre-kindergarten program at a public elementary school (David Douglas School District in Portland was the first). Sept. 3 marked the first day of the program, with 23 youngsters getting a jump start on their education at Lincoln Elementary.
Sharon Nelson retired from her position as Coquille High School principal this summer and became the half-time principal at Lincoln.
"It was something that is a necessity and the sooner we can get our kids into a pre-kindergarten mindset, the school routines and pre-everything, we're looking at making greater advances in student achievement once they reach kindergarten, especially to tie in with the new kindergarten readiness assessment now required by all schools in the state," Nelson said.
The 4-year-olds are going to pre-kindergarten half-days, Monday through Thursday. Coquille kids can attend the program for free, while out-of-town families must pay a $60 monthly fee.
"It is as I had anticipated: a much-needed and wanted program," she said.
Superintendent Tim Sweeney said the discussion of launching a pre-kindergarten program began in March. He turned to Rudy Crew, former Oregon chief education officer, to see if there was any state funding available for a pilot pre-kindergarten program.
"He loved the idea," Sweeney said.
The state didn't end up funding the program, though. Instead, the district received a Title VI Innovate Programs grant from the U.S. Department of Education, as well as grants from Coquille's First Community Credit Union and Coquille Valley Hospital. All in all, the district received approximately $30,000 to fund the program. The remaining $35,000 to $40,000 needed to cover staffing costs will come from the district's general fund.
"There's not a lot of financial incentive" for Oregon school districts to create these types of programs considering budget cuts to education the last several years, he said.
"But we felt the academic and social benefits outweighed the financial limitations," he said. "It really is the right thing to do. If a student is not reading by the end of third grade, their rate of dropping out is exponentially higher and their rate of landing in prison is exponentially higher."
This falls in line with Oregon's Common Core State Standards, an initiative geared toward making sure each student is college- and career-ready by the time he or she graduates.
In order to increase the chance that students meet these expectations, they need more time to learn those skills, he said. Pre-kindergarten also gives children the skills they need to enter kindergarten, such as interacting with their peers and knowing what's expected of them.
Sweeney expects the pre-kindergarten program will be capped at 28 to 30 students per year, putting at most 15 children in each class.
He has "every intention" of continuing the program past this school year, especially since the federal grant is continuous.
"I don't see [the pre-kindergarten program] going away anytime soon, but you can never tell when we're going to have a catastrophic state budget," he said.
He hopes Oregon legislators will make strides in Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposed special legislative session Sept. 30 to avoid more cuts to education.
While he said the district would never require 2-year-olds to go to an early education program, he does believe in a "birth-to-20" model and hopes to expand Lincoln's services in the future by providing preschool for 3-year-olds and a toddler class for children age 2 and under.
Reporter Chelsea Davis can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 239, or by email at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ChelseaLeeDavis.