Preschools partner to overcome wait problem

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What happens when one preschool does not have enough students enrolled to make it viable, while another has a lengthy waiting list of children eager to attend?

The Walla Walla YMCA and Walla Walla Public Schools Head Start/ECEAP program were facing exactly those scenarios last fall. Fortunately, YMCA Youth Development Director Christy Druffel and Walla Walla Public School’s Head Start Director Kerri Coffman are both members of the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition.

At the nonprofit advocacy organization’s December meeting, Druffel and Coffman became aware of one another’s preschool dilemmas and were able to combine forces — forging a partnership that is now serving 29 grateful families of four- and five-year-old preschool children.

“We began our preschool in September 2012 — ultimately enrolling just four children and lacking a bilingual staff. By December, we had made the decision to suspend the program,” said Druffel. Once she was aware of the Head Start/ECEAP waiting list, Druffel was able to secure $10,000 from the First Fruits Foundation administered by Lawson Knight and the Blue Mountain Action Council, as well as $15,000 from a donation to the YMCA’s Youth Sustaining Fund. Additional support from the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition was also applied. The Walla Walla Public Schools provides lunches, and the YMCA’s van transports the children to school each day and returns them home.

Walla Walla Public Schools Head Start/ECEAP currently serves 217 children, offering preschool classes and parenting education to qualifying families. The program supports children’s growth in language and literacy; cognition and general knowledge; physical development and health; social and emotional development; and approaches to learning.

Included are parent education, meals, health and developmental screenings and goal setting, while promoting school readiness.

However, some 59 children from the Walla Walla Valley were still languishing on the waiting list. “It’s frustrating to know there are children out there who could benefit from our program when we just didn’t have the space,” said Coffman.

Head Start/ECEAP’s program staff began making calls to inform waiting families of the new opportunity, rapidly securing students for the program at the YMCA. Kristin Thomas, a teacher with seven years’ experience running her own in-home preschool, was hired, along with three qualified teaching assistants.

Two programs are currently running: Wise Little Owls (8:30-10:30 a.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday), which focuses on small and large motor skills, circle time, learning shapes and letters and practicing social skills. Games Galore and More (10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday), takes advantage of opportunities at the Y, including rock climbing, tumbling, sports and games. Most students attend both classes.

As the first preschool experience for many of the students, the program is highly beneficial.

“Access to a high quality early learning environment is essential for school success — we are thrilled that these children have been afforded this opportunity,” said Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition Director Samantha Bowen. “I am especially pleased that the ELC facilitated the conversation; and continues to act as a catalyst for building relationships and identifying gaps in services for children and families.”

Tracy Thompson is Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition’s communications and outreach coordinator.

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