Head Start program keeps Pre-K at Reamstown

By on August 22, 2018

Renelle Martin (left) stands at Reamstown’s Pre-K program with her children (left to right) Ben, 8, Isaac, 4, Maleah, 10, and Zachary, 5. Isaac is the fourth Martin child to enter Cocalico’s preschool program at Reamstown Elementary School. Photo by Kim Marselas

Just weeks after learning state funding for its preschool program was being discontinued, Cocalico School District is starting the school year with 50 percent more seats for its youngest students.

It’s a reversal that school leaders say could lead to long-term gains.

State officials notified the district in July that $127,500 in Pre-K Counts grant funding would not be renewed, as other districts beat out Cocalico’s application in a rebid year. The district has offered the Pre-K program for 11 years, serving about 30 students per year in a half-day program at Reamstown Elementary School.

The district agreed to cover the cost of the program for four-year-olds for the 2018-19 school year, dipping into a fund meant for unanticipated needs for the roughly $100,000 needed to cover staff salaries and benefits. Neither administrators nor school board members wanted to end the program, especially at a time of year when parents would be caught off guard.

They also didn’t want to lose the benefits of improved behavioral and academic readiness for kindergarten.

“When these students come to us, it’s usually their first experience with school at all,” Superintendent Ella Musser said. “But they just seem to settle right in. You can tell their parents get them excited for it. They see this as a privilege. As we track what happens, we see so many tremendous gains in terms of number sense, letter sense, being able to write their names.”

But district officials acknowledged tiny Cocalico could not afford to fund a preschool program on its own indefinitely.

So Musser went to work, trying to determine how the district could get its grant funding back while reaching to other funding agencies. She learned that Head Start, the federal early education program, had received additional funding and was looking to provide new services in the central Pennsylvania region.

“When I explained to them that we’d lost the Pre-K Counts grant, they moved us to the top of their list,” Musser said.

Last week, Head Start officially agreed to operate a classroom inside Reamstown to serve up to 15 three-year-old students. Classes will be Monday-Friday for six hours a day, providing a far more intensive schedule than most private or church-based preschool programs. Musser said Head Start is self-administered, recruits students from the community, and hires its own staff.

Renelle Martin said she was glad to learn preschool opportunities will continue in Cocalico. A stay-at-home mother of four, her youngest son, Isaac, is starting the four-year-old program this fall.

He’ll follow in the footsteps of siblings Maleah, 10, Ben, 8, and Zachary, 5, (who Martin notes learned to read in last year’s Pre-K class).

Depending on just one income, Martin said she is unsure whether her family could have afforded a private pre-school education or if she would have been able to “completely prepare” her children socially or academically for kindergarten.

“I love that they have the opportunity to obey and respect someone beyond me or their dad or their grandparents,” Martin said. “I think without this program, there will be a decent amount of people who won’t have preschool education for their kids.”

The state-funded Pre-K Count programs accepts children from families living within 300 percent of the poverty line, and Musser said district officials have the discretion to award some seats to students with other risk factors, such as development delays or English-language acquisition needs.

The Head Start program, however, is more stringent and only admits children from families with incomes at or below the poverty line.

That’s one reason Musser said she is going to work to regain the Pre-K Counts grant for the 2019-20 school year.

“Based on the feedback we got, we are thinking we can write the grant application a little differently and meet the criteria they’re looking for,” Musser said. “We’re feeling optimistic.”

In 2015, Cocalico received a perfect score in its annual grant review, and officials had sought an increase in funding in recent years to expand to a second classroom. That request was denied by the state.

If Pre-K Counts falls through again, Musser said she would look to Head Start to make sure some program for four-year-olds continues in Cocalico without interruption.

“We’ll work on a Plan A and a Plan B,” she said. “They’ll be able to help us plan and set the direction.”

For more information about pre-school applications, contact Bobbie Frick at 717-299-7301 x 3012 or through email at bfrick@caplanc.org.

Kimberly Marselas is a correspondent for the Ephrata Review.

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