A steady stream of 4- and 5-year-olds excitedly walk into the Saratoga Elementary School library on a cold afternoon. Soon, this will be their school. They’re here as a part of a once-a-month kindergarten readiness program, a collaborative effort between local preschools, families in the area and the school district to prepare children for the transition to elementary school.

Carbon County School District 2 kindergarten teacher Melissa Spaulding welcomes parents into the library, introducing other school officials alongside team teacher Amanda Shperun, the other kindergarten teacher at Saratoga Elementary School.

Spaulding said her first job out of college was in Casper for Natrona County School District 1 as a preschool teacher, in an elementary school where professionals were required to have a teaching license.

“I would like to see the value in preschool education increase again in our state,” she said. “My team teacher was the kindergarten teacher across the hall. We were able to collaborate and plan regularly about best practices for young children, as well as plan for students’ individual successes. This was all made possible because, similar to Carbon County School District 2, that school valued and appreciated early childhood intervention.”

Despite programming like that in CCSD2 and NCSD1, there is a gap in early childhood education efforts across the state, and a new federal grant awarded to the Early Childhood State Advisory Council aims to address it. The $2 million grant will go to support and improve early childhood education programs in Wyoming, in the form of a statewide needs assessment and strategic plan.

Becca Steinhoff, executive director of WY Kids First and a member of the advisory council, said her team hopes to complete a comprehensive, statewide needs assessment that is both a quantitative and qualitative look at the condition of early childhood education programming across Wyoming communities.

“We will use a lot of what we find in the needs assessment in the strategic plan, so we want to be really thoughtful with a deep understanding about what is happening,” Steinhoff said. “Then, the planning will align with what we learn is taking place both at the state level and the community level.”

The federal grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. It will help the council utilize existing resources more efficiently; encourage partnerships among child care and pre-K providers, Head Start programs, and state and local governments; and improve transitions between early childhood programs and school systems. The year-long project will include the development of an in-depth strategic plan and a comprehensive statewide birth through age 5 needs assessment.

A $2 million investment in early childhood education is amazing, Steinhoff said, but she’s aware there are limitations in the scope of a planning grant.

“This is a planning grant, which $2.1 million is an amazing amount that we feel is an incredible investment in our state,” Steinhoff said. “But a lot of our work will go to assessment and strategic plan, those are expensive endeavors … The really tough thing is … that we know some of what we will find in a needs assessment ... hopefully we will come up with some creative strategies to address those challenges in a strategic plan.”

This is just the first step in what Steinhoff said she hopes will be a larger investment in Wyoming’s early childhood education arena. With a strategic plan in place, the council will be able to apply for state and federal funding to implement programs that will address challenges it has identified, she said.

“This is absolutely the thought process: We hope there will be (dollars) that follow this planning process,” Steinhoff said.

Grant staff will support, manage and coordinate information gathering work this year to make sure the council meets the ambitious timeline given by the federal government, while generating robust stakeholder involvement, she said.

“We will do statewide listening sessions where we will be gathering insights and perspectives about what is really happening, hopefully in April, if we have good weather to get out and about,” Steinhoff said, adding that the council also plans surveys and focus groups across the state.

“We want all kinds of voices in our listening sessions, and we want to follow up with some specific focus groups to make sure we are gaining insights from particular people,” Steinhoff siad.

The challenges facing rural Wyoming might be very different from those in Casper, Cheyenne or Gillette. To address each community, partnering agencies and organizations include: Align; WY Kids First; Wyoming Early Childhood Outreach Network at the University of Wyoming; Wyoming Early Childhood Professional Learning Collaborative; the Wyoming Department of Family Services, Department of Health and Department of Education; Wyoming Head Start Association, and private child care and early education providers.

“Having a strong start to a child’s educational journey helps propel them to a strong finish in their later education and workforce endeavors,” Gov. Mark Gordon said. “I’m proud to support this opportunity to develop a strategic plan and vision for the state’s early childhood system that will help Wyoming’s communities and economy grow and thrive.”

Brekke Monks, Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) coordinator for CCSD2, said the grant is huge for the state.

“Having standards or guidelines for pre-K and early childhood would make transition to kindergarten easier on students, families and the teaching institution,” Munks said. “It would bridge the gap between pre-K and kindergarten by opening conversations, and making sure teachers were all on the same page and students had solid background.”

A comprehensive, statewide look at early childhood education could also provide the foundation for a set of standards required to hire early childhood individuals, making it easier to hire people who are passionate about early childhood and who are in that field to change little lives and families, she said.

“In our south-central region, we need adequate training for our early childhood staff. We need the ability to recruit individuals that will stay long-term. We need to collaborate with our local school systems, preschools and in-home facilities to make sure we are capable of producing little minds ready for elementary school,” she said.

It’s vital that children are able to deal with the socioemotional side of learning, and teachers must be well equipped with professional development training to help kids communicate emotions, and with sharing, making boundaries, and dealing with stress or change, she said.

“However, this comes as a collaboration with the school and what occurs at home,” she said. “We need to be able to provide parenting classes to the community so that parents learn to deal with the stresses of raising a child, teaching coping skills for the changes that happen with infant to toddler to little person, birthing and basic socioemotional skills for parents.”

Quality early childhood experiences lay the foundation for a person’s entire life trajectory, said Robin Cooley, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, one of several partnering agencies.

“This funding will enhance the state’s current early childhood system and provide the necessary infrastructure to support not only children, but their families, and the early childhood education and care workforce,” Cooley said.

Spaulding, who spends a good portion of every day teaching children how to transition from early childhood to elementary school, said she is always looking at ways to bridge the gap between preschool and kindergarten.

“Sometimes, kindergarten is our students’ first experience with school, structure, routine and any kind of academic rigor,” Spaulding said. “We see the need for a program that supports students with building basic kindergarten readiness skills.”

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