Preschool expansion a topic at Way to Wellville forum (Daily Astorian)

By Jack Heffernan

An update to a feasibility study on how to provide free access to preschool for hundreds of local children highlighted Clatsop County Way to Wellville’s public forum last week.

Dan Gaffney provided an update to Clatsop Kinder Ready’s upcoming study of free preschool for as many as 600 children in Clatsop and Tillamook counties.

Partnered with Clatsop County and Way to Wellville, the program would target preschoolers who qualify for free or reduced lunch — or those just above the threshold — as well as those who are learning to speak English.

The program’s “pay for success” model would encourage investors to fund the program. The estimated money saved by the county from the benefits of having local children attend preschool — such as less money spent on juvenile detention centers — would outweigh the costs, Gaffney said. The total money saved would then be awarded to the investor with interest.

The county received a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education in December to fund the feasibility study.

Last week, University of Utah’s Sorenson Impact Center awarded a grant that will provide access to national preschool data. An intermediary will soon analyze the data and present findings to the county as well as potential investors, Gaffney said.

“There’s so much to learn from this whole process,” Gaffney said. “In order to do that, you need to have the right data.”

Gaffney said he hopes to have investors committed to the project by the end of the year.

Thursday’s forum, which had an audience of roughly 35 people, was originally scheduled for early January, but it was pushed back due to winter weather conditions.

Clatsop County was one of five areas in the country to be included in the national Way to Wellville challenge. The challenge began as a competition between the areas over five years. Whichever area most successfully met the parameters of the challenge would have received $5 million. But the challenge participants eventually decided to nix the reward to encourage collaboration, and they extended the program to 10 years.

Members of the local program’s strategic council explained Thursday what projects they had worked on in the past year. In its second year, the local program focused primarily on youth health programs that encouraged behaviors such as emotional development, drug avoidance, stress reduction and active lifestyles. They collaborated local with schools, hospitals, parks and other community organizations to execute the projects.

One area that has been lagging for the program, though, has been wellness promotion for elderly citizens in the county, Coordinator Sydney Van Dusen said. The program will seek to create more projects for people of all age groups over the next few years, she said.

Way to Wellville representatives from across the country will meet in Clatsop County in April to hold their third annual meeting, Van Dusen said. It will be the first of such meetings held in Clatsop County.