An “Early Learning Program” was to be phased out in the Buckeye Valley School District after the 2016-17 school year, but the state education department changed that plan and forced school officials to end it after this school year instead, local officials say.
A number of district parents turned out for last week’s Buckeye Valley school board meeting to express their concerns about the district closing its pre-kindergarten Early Learning Program, which combines day care and pre-kindergarten services.
Kristine Michael, the district’s director of academic achievement, said the district had planned to phase out the program to coincide with the completion of the district’s two new elementary buildings.
“The district was planning on phasing out the Early Learning Program,” Michael said. “The plan was to announce that the 2016-17 year would be the last year of the program.”
According to Michael, the district’s new elementary buildings are to have an additional room each for pre-K classes. The classes would be half-days for up to 16 kids in each class. The two new rooms would accommodate a total of 64 additional openings for pre-K.
Before the plan to phase out the Early Learning Program could be put into place and a public announcement made, Buckeye Valley officials said they were caught off guard by the Ohio Department of Education’s accelerated timetable for pre-K Early Learning programs to meet requirements of the new “Step Up to Quality” rating system. “They really accelerated the time that we had anticipated,” Michael said.
District officials received notice Feb. 12 from the Ohio Department of Education, informing the district that it would be subject to the Step Up to Quality audit. “The turn-around (time) was quite ridiculous,” Michael said.
During the April 19 school board meeting, Michael explained the reason behind the district’s decision to close the Early Learning Program.
The program is to be discontinued at the end of this school year, she said, because it is not able to meet requirements of the state’s Step Up to Quality system that recognizes and promotes quality program standards.
Requirements the Buckeye Valley district couldn’t meet, she said, included: occupational screening assessments of students; developmental lesson plans specified by the “Step Up to Quality” system; teachers weren’t certified under the system; and the Early Learning Program director wasn’t licensed.
According to Michael, the district had planned — in the following year — to follow the same criteria as the pre-K “Baron” program for special-needs children which does meet the requirements of the Step Up to Quality system. “If the timetable had not become accelerated, the teachers could have been licensed at the same level as the Baron teachers,” she said. “The requirements could have been phased in and it could have worked.”
According to Michael, Buckeye Valley officials decided to discontinue the pre-K Early Learning Program because it was under the same license as the Baron program. Officials didn’t try to save the Early Learning Program because of the risk of losing the Baron program. “We were not willing to gamble $100,000 of the taxpayers’ money,” she said.
The district has looked for other grants to fund the pre-K program. “We were not eligible to get the grants,” said Superintendent Andrew Miller.
However, in the April 19 school board meeting, board member Amy Dutt asked, “Are we allowed to start a new program that is a child-care (center) and not preschool, or would we start a new preschool class?”
“I can certainly look into that,” Miller told Dutt.
As for staying in the day care business, “To be determined, it is a business we do want to be in,” said Miller in a phone interview Friday. “We’ll pull some numbers together for the board.”
There isn’t a set precedent of school districts providing day care pre-K children. “Nobody else provides day care,” Miller said. “We need to evaluate in more detail and get more direction. … From a license point (of view), how are we to do all that?”
“We’re looking into a school having an Ohio Department of Job and Family Services license,” Miller said. “I hope we’ll have the information back in the next couple of weeks.”
In the meantime, pre-K spots for next year are not filled. “We still don’t have all the spots filled currently,” Michael said.
The district’s two schools now serve 51 pre-K children.
D. Anthony Botkin may be reached at 740-413-0902 or on Twitter @dabotkin.