A program to help Columbia children get ready for school is scheduled to open in August.
On Monday, the Columbia School Board approved the Park Avenue Child and Family Development Center, a partnership between Columbia Public Schools and Head Start. The center is part of the school district’s Early Childhood Initiative, which seeks to expand programs that serve needy students to help close the achievement gap between students of different class groups.
“We’re really wanting to focus on those families that have the greatest need and making sure we’re reaching those families to make sure their children get to school successfully,” said Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education.
The Park Avenue center is a collaboration between the school district’s Title I Preschool, a federally funded program that prepares children for school, and Head Start, a federal preschool program for children from low-income families.
The new program would provide a full-day preschool experience for 45 3- and 4-year-olds.
Mernell King, director of Columbia’s Head Start, said 38 children now participate in both Head Start and Title I half-day preschools but must be transported from one location to another.
Moving the children has more than logistical difficulties.
“We’re asking kids with the lowest coping skills to make the biggest transition,” said Mary Rook, director of Title I Preschool.
The Park Avenue center would keep children in the same place all day and provide transportation to and from the program. Two meals and a snack would also be provided for the students.
King said the Park Avenue site will eliminate duplicated services and provide a more comprehensive program.
“Just by working together and streamlining the process, kids win,” King said. “It’s the right thing to do for kids and families.”
To participate in the new program, children must be at least 3 years old and eligible for both Title I Preschool and Head Start. Children qualify for Title I based on a developmental screening that tests motor and language skills and concept development. To be eligible for Head Start, the child’s family must fall within federal poverty guidelines.
The facility, next to Douglass High School, is being renovated. It will be home to three classrooms of 15 preschoolers each, Jensen said.
Three teachers and three aides will be provided by Head Start, along with a family development advocate and a team leader, King said.
Columbia Public Schools plans to be involved as well. The district will provide one full-time teacher, one full-time aide, one half-time teacher and one half-time aide, Rook said.
By creating the Park Avenue center, the district should be able to reach more children and free up slots in other preschool programs in the district. Title I Preschool now serves 390 children and anticipates 450 in the fall.
The district has appropriated about $150,000 for Early Childhood Initiative programs, which includes both Title I Preschool and Parents As Teachers. Title I programs are funded through the federal government, but the additional funds will be used to expand the program, Jensen said.
“It’s important that every child have the opportunity to come to school ready to learn,” Jensen said. “… We believe that all students can be very successful in our program if they have the appropriate opportunities.”