ASPEN - When the Aspen School District decided to move its pre-kindergarten class from The Cottage Preschool building into the elementary school, administrators did not anticipate the trickle-down effect of relocating 16 small children.
"When we started this conversation last year, I honestly saw nothing but positive things coming out of it," said Cottage director Christina Holloway. "And now that we have moved, I still see nothing but positive results."
According to Holloway and Aspen Superintendent John Maloy, the district made its decision to move the class into the lower level of Aspen Elementary for two main reasons: to open up more spaces for preschool children to attend The Cottage by increasing the number of classrooms and because it makes educational sense for these 4- and 5-year-old kids to be closer to the district's kindergarten classes.
"The exciting thing is that not only did it offer more spaces for quality early-learning opportunities, it brought our pre-K closer to the kindergarten," Holloway said. "I believe this will make their transition to kindergarten so much easier. Plus it allows us to collaborate with those teachers easier."
Some saw it another way.
"I wouldn't want my kid in a room with no outside light," said a concerned community member, who asked not to be identified and said that parents of some students were similarly reluctant to talk publicly. "And the other concern is that room is right across the hall from a space used by high school and middle school kids."
The new pre-K class is located in the lower level of the Aspen Elementary School building in a room that has been used for everything from a classroom to an office to a dressing room for the district theater. The school's vocal and instrumental classes - as well as some Aspen Middle School and Aspen High School classes - also are held on that level of the school. The classroom does not have any windows to the outside, but administrators say it is perfectly suited for small children as it is self-contained and quiet and has its own bathroom and kitchen facilities.
"I would invite the public to come see what we have done," Holloway said, adding that the children spend plenty of time outdoors on the playgrounds and during excursions to the main Cottage building. "Yes, it is in the lower level, but I don't have any concern about the space or the quality of our program."
Still, Holloway admits there was some pushback from parents. She believes many of their concerns have been alleviated, though. In fact, The Cottage's pre-kindergarten program is currently filled to capacity with more parents wanting to enroll their children if space becomes available.
According to Maloy, moving the class has allowed the district "to serve the needs of more preschool children, especially preschool children with disabilities, as the waiting list has been increasing over the past two years," he said.
As the Aspen School District's preschool, The Cottage is charged with educating young children on Individualized Education Programs, children identified to be part of the Colorado Preschool Program and children of district staff and the community at large. Current enrollment is pretty well divided among these groups, Holloway said.
If space is not available for Individualized children in Individualized Education Programs and the Colorado Preschool Program at The Cottage, the district must pay to have them attend preschool elsewhere. So by opening up a new classroom, and being able to enroll more children, the district has seen The Cottage's bottom line improve.
This, some concerned parents say, is where the problem lies.
"Some people think the district did this for financial gains rather than because it's what's best for the kids," the anonymous community member said.
Maloy takes issue with that idea.
"We're not making money hand over fist by any means, but it is nice to be in the black as opposed to in the red," said Maloy, who told the Aspen Board of Education in August that the district could anticipate a $10,000 to $15,000 increase in revenue as a result of the expansion.
Still, naysayers wonder why another space - such as the Aspen Elementary auxiliary gum - wasn't converted to a pre-kindergarten class. Maloy told the Board of Education that this was considered but was pulled off the table because that first-floor classroom is not soundproof nor designed for small children with its own bathroom or kitchen facilities, and the cost of such upgrades was prohibitive.
At that same school board meeting, Maloy also noted that the move has created some strife with local arts groups as the new pre-kindergarten classroom most recently was used as a dressing room for those renting the district theater.
"There was some concern among users of the district theater about what the move meant for their operations," Maloy said. "We have been trying to work with them on finding suitable alternatives."
In fact, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has done some legwork to see what it would cost to finish out a new dressing room.
"The renters of the theater who use dressing rooms will continue to use the spaces that do not occupy students during the day and all available spaces in the evening," Maloy said. "We have spoken with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and (it) has indicated that it would be interested in designing current space into dressing rooms that could be used by the ballet and other renters who need dressing rooms. The district is still reviewing its options."
Maloy said the challenge the district faces stems from the fact that the schools are, first and foremost, schools. As such, some spaces must be used to accommodate the needs of the students it serves, such as those in the pre-kindergarten program.
"We had a classroom that sat empty for the majority of the year, and we had a need to relocate our pre-K class," he said. "The conversation we were having about dressing rooms was all about adults, so we did what we needed to do for the children."
But Maloy said the district is sympathetic to the arts groups' needs and is willing to work toward an acceptable end for all parties.
"We will review the complete impact of the move throughout the year and make a determination by year's end on how we will proceed for the 2013-14 school year," he said.
Regardless, rumors that the district theater's scene shop will be eliminated as part of the class's move are completely false, Maloy said.
"Unless all parties can agree on a new location that meets everyone's needs, the scene shop is slated to remain at its current location," he said, adding that he and other district administrators have met - and will continue to meet - with representatives of the ballet, Aspen Community Theatre, the Aspen Music Festival and Theatre Aspen, which are the main users of the district's theater facilities.
"I think that we are all on the same page," Holloway added. "We are willing to collaborate to make this work for everyone. I am confident we can do this."