Preparing a child for school starts at infancy.
Leslie Baker, owner of Fits-N-Giggles daycare and preschool in Norfolk, knows this well.
When she started her business, she knew there was a need for in-home childcare in the area — and incorporating a preschool naturally followed.
“We start focusing on preschool as early as 18 months, with curriculum and learning through play,” she said. “Of every development stage, we’re allowing exploration and problem solving.”
As a private preschool owner, Baker takes her responsibility to prepare children for kindergarten very seriously. And now, with a recently formed group called Power of Preschool, she can collaborate with other early childhood educators in the area to share ideas and resources.
“It’s helping to get everybody involved to help the kiddos,” she said. “The kids are going to benefit the most.”
The Power of Preschool group, which Norfolk Public Schools formed as part of a district-wide strategic goal, is bringing together the preschool community in Norfolk with the ambitious aim to provide all children with the opportunity for a high-quality preschool education.
The strategic goal is to give opportunities for all children to be prepared to learn once they enter kindergarten. The main pillars of this goal are research-based program development and community collaboration.
It’s important to reach out to the community, said Melissa Jantz, principal of Little Panthers Preschool. That’s because the Norfolk district usually has about 330 students entering kindergarten every year, but the public preschool only serves about 100 students.
There are about 50 children on the waiting list for Little Panthers every year, and the district’s new preschool building — the former Our Savior Lutheran Church — will accommodate the needs of those on the waiting list.
But it still won’t be able to serve all students who need a preschool education.
“Where are the other 230 kiddos going for preschool?” she said. “We have to think bigger than us.”
Support for early childhood education is also more needed in Madison County, which has 52 percent of children age 0 to 5 at risk of school failure, according to First Five Nebraska, an organization that promotes early childhood education. There are about 39 percent of at-risk children under the age of 5 in Nebraska, and Madison County is one of 21 counties in the state that has over 51 percent of children at risk.
Having more than half of the children under age 5 at risk means it’s crucial to have extra training and support for educators, Jantz said.
“We have children living in poverty, or living in stressful situations; they may need a little extra support so they can be ready to be successful in kindergarten,” she said. “So I think it does take extra training for us and extra knowledge for us to support every child — regardless of what type of household they come from.”
The first Power of Preschool meeting took place in October. The group has met twice and the next meeting will be in January. Seven private preschools were represented at the meeting. Representatives from public preschools and members of the district action team also attended.
Baker has attended the meetings and said the group will help educators and the community, but children most of all.
“I think Norfolk is really going to benefit from this just because (otherwise) there’s never going to be a group to bring everybody who teaches preschool together,” she said. “Every (preschool’s) doing their own thing, and when kids go to kindergarten they’re expected to be the same.”
As a private preschool, Fits-N-Giggles has different certifications than Little Panthers. Its six teachers attend trainings about topics like how to introduce learning materials to children and behavior management, Baker said. With the Power of Preschool group, educators can share ideas and have access to training opportunities.
Jantz said the goal of the group is to help all preschools in Norfolk have resources to help students get the education they need. She estimates that there are about a dozen preschools in the area.
Baker said the group has helped her make connections with other early childhood educators in the area.
“As a private provider I hadn’t met a lot of public providers, I hadn’t even met other private providers,” she said. “Now that we can bring our ideas together for what we think is the best moving forward, I think that’s going to benefit us.”
The next steps for the strategic action team are to define a high quality preschool program and create a checklist for parents who are looking at preschools.
The checklist is designed to help guide parents through the process of choosing a preschool in Norfolk, with questions about curriculum and teacher experience, Jantz said. The group will distribute the resource throughout the community by leaving printed pamphlets at doctors’ offices, for example.
Outreach to parents is important because about 18 percent of students entering Kindergarten at NPS have had no experience with preschool at all, Jantz said.
For students who haven’t gone to school before kindergarten, the families may have issues with finance or transportation, Baker said. It can often be difficult for parents to juggle work schedules.
Fits-N-Giggles recently started accepting subsidies to make sure more children get a quality education.
“Recently we had families reaching out, saying, ‘We’ve heard great things but we need assistance.’ That’s when I made the decision of ‘I don’t want to turn anybody away,’ ” Baker said.
With full waiting lists at NPS, parents who can’t afford private preschools might have a problem finding a place to send their children, she said. It can also be difficult for new families to know what options are available to them. The parent guide seeks to fill in some of these gaps, Jantz said.
She also hopes, in time, that the group will continue to grow and develop into a professional network that contains all preschools in Norfolk.
“We truly can all learn from each other,” she said. “How are we going to ensure every child gets an opportunity for that really high quality experience? It’s bigger than NPS. It’s our Norfolk community — how are we all going to do it as a team.”