Some of Walla Walla’s youngest learners will be getting a longer school day via a grant from Washington state and a new partnership between Walla Walla Public Schools and Educational Service District 123.

A recent Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program award will add 30 preschool slots for 3- and 4-year-olds at Blue Ridge Elementary School and expand most services to full day for five days a week starting next fall, WWPS spokesman Mark Higgins said.

Through consolidating federal Head Start and the state ECEAP dollars, there are currently seven Blue Ridge classrooms operating at 3.25 hours a day, four days a week for 234 eligible preschool students.

That student number is based on funding limitations, Higgins said, and the recently announced state grant allows the program to serve 264 qualifying children, with most getting full-day services.

This could be a game-changer for many families who don’t use the preschool program due to the difficulties of finding half-day child care or transporting their children to Blue Ridge and back home, Superintendent Wade Smith said at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

The news potentially gets better, he said.

Walla Walla Public Schools is also in the running for Head Start’s “Duration Grant,” which would pay for increased class time and learning opportunities for the community children who need it most. The grant is handed over to school districts as an incentive to provide full-day preschool, Smith said, and would ensure long-term funding for Head Start in Walla Walla.

Here, the grant would convert 60 of the half-day slots to full day for qualified families.

Every school district knows better than to rely on federal money, Smith said, but the Duration Grant builds longevity into its model. It also pays for training and support of Head Start staff.

As well, Head Start and Washington state are convinced full-day preschool classes are so beneficial, they will soon no longer fund the half-day model, Smith said.

The district expects to hear if that grant will be awarded to Walla Walla in the next week or two. Smith said he is optimistic.

More time needed

The half day of preschool children get through WWPS now is just not enough class time to move the needle on kindergarten-readiness assessments, officials said.

State benchmarks for children preparing to enter kindergarten include an ability to get along with others; physical abilities such as handling crayons, pencils and a fork; listening and speaking; problem-solving; recognizing letters and their sounds; counting and sorting; knowing shapes and sizes; and an awareness of their name and home address.

Analysis from local organizations, including Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition, Community Council and Walla Walla Early Learning Taskforce, reveal a need for more early learning services. A 2018 Walla Walla County Community Health report found four of Walla Walla’s six elementary schools fall below the statewide average for kindergarten readiness, Smith said.

As well, the overall financial impact of the increased grant revenues plugs an anticipated $750,000 budget shortfall for the 2019-2020 school year.

Costs associated with running a preschool have presented a yearly hurdle for the district that’s been met with reducing staff, cutting training and fundraising for basic supplies, he said.

The ECEAP grant, plus the possible Head Start grant, better cement the district’s ability to continue offering preschool programming in the future, Smith told the board.

Eligibility will be prioritized by family income levels and a student’s learning needs, officials said. Smith added that with the full-day classes and the transportation the grants will pay for, he believes the waiting list for WWPS preschool will balloon.

“I can almost guarantee you we will have new families saying ‘we want in,” he told board members.

With increased preschool days and numbers of students, the next question is how to fit it all into Blue Ridge, which is located on Chestnut Street close to the entrance of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“It’s going to be tight,” Smith said.

Making it work

Like other Walla Walla elementary schools, Blue Ridge’s census has dropped over the past few years, meaning less classroom space is needed for K-5 students. Blue Ridge’s population will only require 12 general education classrooms next year, and it’s likely the preschool program will use three regular classrooms upstairs in addition to the downstairs space it uses at Blue Ridge now, according to Smith.

As the number of preschoolers rise, it will take some creative problem solving; moving a modular building onto the campus is an option to consider. Space leased by the ESD 123 will help offset the cost, Smith said.

Redistricting school boundaries may also warrant a look down the road, he said.

The family population is shifting around the district, and more kids are attending schools farther from the center of town, Smith said.

“You think of where the new housing is going. It’s not downtown.”

According to recent state data, WWPS has more elementary classrooms than numbers call for, and the expectation is that some of Walla Walla elementary schools will be half full in the next few years, the superintendent said.

On Tuesday, board members agreed to collect community input about how to best use the district’s six elementary campuses, given the declining enrollment trend of the past several years. Although one building — and not necessarily Blue Ridge — will be used for early learning purposes, that leaves five more schools underpopulated, Smith said.

For the 2019-2020 school year — no matter what else happens — there are logistics to figure out to accommodate more preschool kids staying for more of the day, including busing, parent drop-off and pick-up, Smith said.

“It’s a great problem to have.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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