Preschool offers room to grow (Daily Astorian)

By Edward Stratton

GEARHART — After Cannon Beach Preschool and Children’s Center shut down in May, former director Christy Bisping spent at least $12,000 building out Gearhart Kids Academy, her new preschool and daycare along U.S. Highway 101. Hers is one of only two preschools in Clatsop County rated through the Oregon Quality Rating Improvement System, the state’s foremost method for ensuring quality in preschools.

Like other providers, Bisping doesn’t have much trouble filling her infant and toddler daycare rooms. But two weeks after the start of K-12 classes, she only has four students out of a possible 20 in her preschool. She said price is the biggest inhibitor, along with a lack of understanding about the importance of preschool.

Bisping’s concerns are at the forefront of efforts by local early childhood specialists to better prepare kids for the future.

Improving quality

Tara Mestrich, coordinator of Oregon State University Extension Service’s Family Care Connection program, said the county has about 35 licensed preschool providers offering a potential 586 preschool slots.

There are usually plenty of preschool slots available, she said, while the real demand is driven by infant, toddler and after-school care.

Bisping said she worked really hard for the quality rating in Cannon Beach and in Gearhart, but that it hasn’t paid many dividends yet. The program, created by Western Oregon University’s Teaching Research Institute, is in its second year. Not many parents understand what it means yet, Bisping said, and more are focused on price and location.

Mestrich said her office is now concentrating on expanding such professional development among preschools and daycares, and the understanding among parents about quality rating. A second provider, Adrienne Hunter, was recently rated through the program. More than half of the county’s licensed providers are now following in Bisping’s and Hunter’s footsteps to become quality-rated programs.

“The professional development aspect is what holds most people back,” Mestrich said, adding the county lacks higher-level courses in early childhood education.

Clatsop Community College recently dropped its early childhood education program because of lagging enrollment. Mestrich said her office convinced the college to bring back an early childhood education class, refers people to online options and provides professional development classes for local providers. They are also planning classes taught to preschool providers by kindergarten teachers in math, literacy and social development.

“They’re more excited about being high-quality, of course, because Oregon’s getting more money for child care,” Mestrich said. “It’s really kind of changed the look of child care.”

Preschool Promise

Last year, the state Legislature allocated $16 million toward Preschool Promise, an effort to support quality preschool options through partnerships with different providers. The effort has led to an additional 1,300 subsidized preschool slots statewide for kids from families within 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Fifteen of those subsidized slots are on the bottom floor of Capt. Robert Gray School, where the Astoria School District launched a preschool this fall. Michelle Gardner, head teacher at the preschool, said most of her students are within 100 to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, the next tier of low-income preschoolers who don’t make it into Head Start. The district provides transportation for the Head Start students, and Head Start enrolls students in the district’s preschool.

The district, in partnership with the Cannon Beach Preschool, applied for the Preschool Promise funding through the states Early Learning Council. Astoria received funding in part because the state Department of Human Services identified large swaths east of the Astoria Bridge as the county’s only “hot spot,” based on high rates of poverty, public assistance and mobility of families with school-age children. Gardner said there are already four kids on the preschool’s wait list, some of whom Astoria is referring to Head Start, which is still trying to find enough students for a third preschool classroom in Seaside.

“We’re trying to partner with home preschoolers, just opening up more places,” Gardner said. “We’re trying to work with all providers to make sure every child does preschool.”


Pay for success


More than 2 1/2 years ago, Clatsop Kinder Ready was funded by the Oregon Community Foundation.

“We’ve brought about a great deal of awareness about the ages 0 to 5, and what goes in to helping a child develop, and how critical that is to the rest of their life,” said Dan Gaffney, a former principal in Seaside and head of Clatsop Kinder Ready.

In a partnership with Way to Wellville community wellness program, Gaffney is now working on a grant application that would study the feasibility of privately funded, universal preschool for kids in Clatsop, Tillamook and possibly Columbia counties through the U.S. Department of Education’s Preschool Pay for Success grants.

The model attracts private investors to pay for high-quality preschool programs in a given area, with the understanding it can help avoid societal costs in the future. Gaffney said Clatsop Kinder Ready would be working with existing preschool programs. If a local area meets certain goals, such as reducing special education usage, it pays the investors back. Goldman Sachs invested in such a program in Salt Lake City’s Granite School District, dramatically lowering the number of children kindergarten through fifth grade needing special education services.

“They see this as a way of improving society,” Gaffney said of Pay for Success investors. “They’re taking the risk … that they may not make back their money. They understand that if we don’t provide a quality preschool experience, that has a lasting effect on society.”

The U.S. Department of Education has made available $2.8 million for the feasibility studies. Gaffney said there will be seven to 14 awards worth $200,000 to $400,000 each, with the announcement of winners in December.

More information:

For more information on how to become a licensed childcare provider, contact Tara Mestrich with the Family Care Connection program at 503-325-1220.