Idaho is one of just 10 states that do not have state-wide pre-kindergarten. But some school districts are finding ways to provide early childhood education. In Caldwell, public and private partners are trying a novel strategy that supporters hope will transform children’s futures.
A year ago, in a modular building behind a Caldwell elementary school, a class of 4-year-olds get ready to head home for the day. These kids may not know it but they’re the first participants in a first-of-its-kind program in Idaho known as P-16. A towering man with long dreadlocks comes into the room and the kids mob him for high-fives. Al Obayuwana directs the P-16 program
“The P stands for preschool and the 16 would be the completion of 16 grades, or four years through college,” he explains.
Though Obayuwana works in the schools, he doesn’t work for the school district. He works for the Treasure Valley YMCA. P-16 is a collaboration among the Y, the Caldwell School District and the United Way. District special education director Stephanie Carpenter says the program was spawned when the school system compared itself to other Idaho districts.
“Caldwell had one of the lowest rates of graduation and continuing on to any post-secondary education,” Carpenter says. “And so from there, talks started with the YMCA and other organizations of how we could work together to remedy this.”
The program that took shape includes preschool, after school programs, and mentorships with people from higher education and business. Carpenter says of all the parts of P-16, they saw pre-k as the greatest need.
“We have a significant number of kids that come into kindergarten with no exposure to anything pre-academic, to the alphabet, to the basic things that you need to be successful in kindergarten now.” Kindergarten, Carpenter adds, is more demanding than it used to be. Kids are expected to read by the time they go to first grade.
P-16 preschooler Aisha is happy to show off her pre-academic skills. She makes it through the alphabet with a small slip around 'J' and 'K'.
“I have two older girls, says Aisha's mom Irene Rayas, "and they didn’t go to pre-school and they were a little behind when they started kindergarten, so I just wanted to try something different.” When asked if it’s working, she says it is. “She’s totally ready for kindergarten now," Rayas adds.
P-16 has now finished its 2nd year and it has ambitious goals. For instance, administrators want to offer preschool in 10 locations instead of just the current two. But first it has to secure reliable long-term funding from non-profits and businesses. Not an easy task, but likely easier than getting money from Idaho’s Legislature.
“I’ve been trying, gosh for 30 years and have gone numerous times to the legislature,” says Jim Everett, president of the Treasure Valley YMCA, one of the partners in P-16. “It’s been frustrating at times, but you get frustrated, you've got to get over it pretty quickly,” he adds.
Everett’s work with the Y made him an advocate for early childhood education.
“We get kids that are 3-years-old that have never had anybody sit down and read to them," he says. “They’ve never owned a book, they’ve never held a crayon in their hand.”
Everett has also advocated for pre-k as a member of Idaho Business for Education (IBE). That’s a group of business leaders who want to improve the state’s school system. Though not all 80-plus members are on the same page concerning pre-k ,the group as a whole believes in it and has lobbied lawmakers to create a state program.
For nearly a decade that was a hot topic at the statehouse. Between 2001 and 2010, 13 pro-pre-k bills were introduced. None were able to pass both chambers. Steven Thayne was one of those who helped block pre-k in the House.
“I’m really opposed to the current pre-kindergarten philosophy of having the state step in and remove that parental responsibility,” Thayne says.
He sees public pre-k as government coming between parents and children.
“Early on the most important factor in a student’s education life is the support they get from their parents,” he says. “We should be training parents, not training 3-and-4-year-olds.”
Pre-k proposals in Idaho stopped when the economy slid. There wasn't money available to pay for new programs. If bills come forward again anytime soon, they might have an even tougher time. Most of those who championed pre-k in the past, like Democrat Mike Burkett and Republican Tim Corder, are no longer in the Legislature. Jim Everett says IBE has given up on lawmakers for now.
“We’re stepping back and saying 'let’s not worry about specific legislation',” Everett says. “Can we create a vision of what we want for our kids? If we can get that shared vision, then we can start talking about what the tactics are and what the legislation might have to be to get there.”
For the past year-and-a-half, IBE and other groups have been asking prominent Idahoans to sign what’s called 'Idaho’s Pledge for Children'. It’s a list of big-picture ideas about what’s best for kids. It covers things like education, emotional development, and health. Now, Everett says his group isn’t sure what to do with the signatures.
For the foreseeable future, public preschool in Idaho will likely be left to local school districts. And with a lack of state funding, experimental programs like Caldwell’s P-16 may become the norm.
Find more stories in our series on preschool in Idaho at these links:
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