STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Part of the master plan to address overcrowding and needed upgrades in Steamboat Springs public schools includes adding preschool into the elementary schools.
Final decisions have not yet been made as to whether Strawberry Park will remain an elementary school and whether the proposed new facility will be a school with pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade, pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade or a fifth- through eighth grade school.
Regardless, the plan is to move the existing Early Childhood Center out of the administration building on Seventh street and into either two or three school buildings.
Any new construction also hinges on the passage of a bond issue by voters in November.
However, any plans by the district to increase preschool capacity raises concern about impacts to the community, Tami Havener told the Steamboat Springs board of education at its April 1 meeting.
During an interview the following week, Havener, executive director of The Discovery Learning Center, said she would support preschool becoming part of the elementary school, but she cautioned against significant expansion.
“It could hurt community programs,” Havenar said. “When public preschool expands too fast, programs close because enrollment drops, and they are no longer financially feasible.”
The profit-and-loss margins in the business are “so slim,” she said. It doesn’t take a large drop in enrollment to have a big financial impact. And those centers provide year-round care for longer hours than the traditional school day, Havener noted.
Havener said she isn’t concerned about her own business, but rather, she wants the district to be aware of the potential impact to the community as a whole and to understand the choices currently available for families.
Soda Creek Elementary School Principal Michelle Miller pointed out the district is required by federal and state statute to provide preschool for 3- to 5-year-olds who qualify for special education. Miller said the district follows best practices by having the program open to all kids, not just those with disabilities.
In adding preschool to the elementary schools, Miller said the district isn’t necessarily looking to expand into a larger program but rather benefit from the advantages of having preschool under the same roof as the elementary school.
“We are looking at what is best for kids and families,” Miller said. “And to have access in elementary schools makes sense.”
There is more continuity for the students and any services they are getting from specialists, she said. It’s also easier for parents to pick up and drop off multiple children at one location.
“Our preschoolers are just as much a part of the district as fifth, eighth and 10th graders,” she said. “They deserve better resources and access to other things the buildings have, like the gym, lunch room and art room.”
And, as Steamboat grows, she acknowledges, they may need to add more spaces for preschoolers, especially those requiring special services.
Because specialized services are only offered by the district, Miller said she anticipates there will still be a need for all the different preschool options in the community. The other programs also offer varying schedules, and there is a cost difference as the district charges about half the tuition as the private preschools.
The district is currently licensed for 60 slots, and enrolls about 45 kids with most attending for a half day.
“We’re not looking to expand into a huge preschool program,” Miller said.
She also pointed out that staffing for preschool is “very difficult.”
Superintendent Brad Meeks echoed that the district “isn’t looking to create a mega preschool” but rather add it into elementary schools to better serve families and neighborhoods. In a new facility, there is also an opportunity to design a preschool area from the ground up, he said, and design it to best meet the needs of the community.
“It’s not our goal to put people out of business,” Meeks said. But rather to “maintain our current programming until there is an obvious need for more slots.”
Meeks also noted the district already works with local preschools in sharing state funding through First Impressions.
While there currently are enough licensed spots in Steamboat for 3- to 5-year-olds, the massive need in the community is for care for children age birth to 2.
“We should be having a conversation about infant care,” Meeks said.
Havener noted that for the centers that do offer infant care, the preschool-age kids subsidize the infant care, which is much more costly to provide.
Both Meeks and Miller said they are open to the idea of providing care for the birth to 2 age group, but it would likely require community partnerships.
Even infant care for school staff, they both said, would go a long way to help families until the kids are old enough for preschool.