BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Fort Madison school officials are trying to figure out what is leading to the reduced enrollment in the district’s free 4-year-old preschool program.
According to Kim Harmon, Fort Madison Community School District’s director of curriculum and student services, the district has a capacity for 80 students in the 4-year-old free preschool program but right now there is still space for about 14 more students.
The district runs programs through Carousel Preschool and the Fort Madison YMCA. The YMCA, which runs morning and afternoon classes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, currently has three openings. The Carousel Preschool which operates out of the Union Presbyterian Church in Fort Madison has 11 openings available.
Harmon said the district provides funding to the preschool operators through a statewide voluntary preschool grant, which enables all 4-year-olds who aren’t income eligible for Head Start to be put in the district’s program at no charge to the families.
“We provide the funding to them. We have two classes at each place and each class has a capacity of 20 students. So we have the ability to serve 80 for free and right now our numbers are well below that,” Harmon said. “So if there are 4-year-olds that aren’t in a preschool we would love to have them and if they didn’t get in at the beginning of the year, they can still get in.”
Candy Barquam, who is the director and teacher at Carousel Preschool, said students must have turned four prior to Sept. 15 to get in the program, but there is still plenty of room. Barquam’s been teaching for 16 years.
She said she isn’t really sure why enrollment is down unless the district just has a low population of 4-year-olds.
“I think you have to acknowledge that transportation is a challenge or some families. One of the reasons we’d like to build a new prek-3rd grade elementary is so we could bring those kids in and have transportation available for those families,” Barquam said.
She said the program is very successful at helping the youngsters acquire skills and behaviors that help them assimilate better to kindergarten. Barquam has a Master’s Degree in Literacy and incorporates those skills into the curriculum at the pre-school.
“We do a lot of large and small group activities to enhance areas of development such as fine motor skills, gross motor skills, literacy, social and emotional development language cognitive skills,” she said.
Math and social studies activities are also part of the program in the form of art, songs, finger plays, and centers where they work on math. But the core areas aren’t the only skills being introduced as part of the program.
“We also incorporate kindergarten readiness skills like alphabet, literacy, and letter sounds and knowledge. Obviously we also work with numbers, shapes – getting them to learn to hold pencils and even writing their names for kindergarten. We even teach them how to line up, walk in a straight line and then they can jump in at kindergarten and get started.
Harmon said the district gets funding from the state at about 1/2 the rate of students enrolled in K-12th grade in the district and funding for the programs was based on registrations as of Oct. 1.
Fort Madison does have a federally funded Head Start program, but families have to be below income thresholds to qualify. It’s a free program as well as the district’s preschool program, so families have the choice of the two programs.
“We do have a Head Start program but you have to qualify for income thresholds,” Harmon said. “There are families in the middle that can’t afford private preschool and don’t qualify for head start, and that’s the demographic we’re looking at.”
A component of the loss of enrollment may be attributable to lack of transportation. Families currently have to find their own transportation for getting the preschool students to and from the classes. However Central Lee recently opened up a preschool program within their buildings and were able to put transportation costs in their grant request.
Emily Hymes, the director of the YMCA program since its inception four years ago, said Central Lee was able to do that because the program operates under the school district, whereas Fort Madison’s program is run through the private groups.
The YMCA program runs two classes each day Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with a morning class from 8:30 to 11 a.m. and an afternoon class from 12:30 to 3 p.m. They do not hold class on Wednesday.
Hymes agreed with Berquam that the new school would solve the problem, because the preschool programs would be incorporated into the school district at that point and transportation would then be available for the families.
Hymes said the YMCA approach to early learning is holistic.
“We take a whole child approach. We work on social and emotional issues, literacy, letters, letter sounds and names and those kinds of things, but a big piece is the social and emotional teaching, and I think people forget about that sometimes. The sharing and getting along with each other, that’s important,” she said.
“We are aligned with the common core in terms of what we use in our curriculum. The preschool programs have a liaison with the school district and we share our data with them and the state.”
Both Fort Madison preschool programs have teacher associates who help with the programs on a day-to-day basis. Barquam has two in the morning classes and one in the afternoon due to the lagging enrollment. Hymes has two associates in each of her classes as well.
More information on the Carousel Preschool can be obtained by calling 319-372-1424 and the YMCA program can be reached at 319-372-2403 ext. 4.