Guest commentary: Giving our kids a jump start | AspenTimes.com

Guest commentary: Giving our kids a jump start

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest Commentary

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

A few years ago, we learned that only about half of local kids who showed up for their first day of kindergarten were actually ready to learn.

Some were scared to leave their parents or had never entered a classroom before and couldn't sit still. Others had no meaningful experience with words or numbers. So, to put it another way, these children were already behind on their first day of school.

When this happens — and it happens a lot, because preschool isn't available to many kids in the Aspen-to-Parachute region — it can derail academic success from the get-go. If the Aspen Community Foundation's Cradle to Career Initiative is to help all of our region's 22,000 children succeed in life, then one of the things it must do is prepare kids to learn at the outset of their educational careers. And that's why the Cradle to Career Initiative's first goal is "Ready for Kindergarten."

This isn't an easy goal. Many families can't pay for quality preschool, and many of those with the ability to pay often cannot find space for their kids in the valley's full-to-the-brim early-childhood centers. Here are some of the things we've done to answer these needs:

First, in western Garfield County, we're literally bringing preschool to underserved neighborhoods in the form of school buses retrofitted into preschool classrooms. In New Castle, Silt and Rifle, "Gus the Bus" and "The Sunshine Bus" travel to lower-income areas where kids attend preschool in the parked vehicle. In exchange for this free program, the parents volunteer on the bus and attend once-per-month parent-education meetings, where they learn about everything from proper nutrition to the importance of reading to their children.

The results from the program are remarkable and receiving statewide recognition. The Colorado Department of Education recently licensed the "Preschool on Wheels" program as the first of its kind in the state. During its three years of operation, 235 kids have benefited from this education. David Collins, director of the Education Department's Early Care and Learning Division, said, "We are hopeful that the mobile preschool model will expand to other areas of the state where child care deserts exist, thereby expanding access to high-quality preschool for more children."

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We're using other strategies in other places. In Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, where there are long waiting lists to attend preschool, we've worked with the Roaring Fork School District to create summer "jump start" programs in the elementary schools. By identifying incoming kindergartners who have not had prior schooling or who have other risk factors, we're able to offer a five-week introduction to school. Thus, when these children show up in the fall, they're greeted by familiar faces in a familiar place. They know how to function in a classroom and with their classmates. These programs also include home visits, so the parents become part of the learning process.

In Aspen, we're also enabling between 30 and 40 at-risk children to attend a six-week summer preschool program for incoming kindergartners. These children receive state funding to attend preschool from September to June but would otherwise go without the classroom and social time during summer. With our help, they enter kindergarten fully prepared for their first "real" classroom experience.

All of this good work does not happen without dedicated professionals working together, sharing their expertise and clearing obstacles to solve problems. The Ready for Kindergarten team of the Aspen Community Foundation's Cradle to Career Initiative includes child care providers, nonprofit groups, schoolteachers and administrators, and human-services professionals. We extend our deep gratitude to this core team and all the local government, business and community members who are working with us to address this issue in each of the region's cities and towns.

Through these coordinated efforts involving hundreds of people, we're making real headway toward giving all of the region's children a strong educational start. And the research tells us that the right classroom and social experiences in early childhood make all the difference later in life.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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