First Day of School

Chadron Primary students, teachers and parents gathered on the playground Aug. 15, 2018, for the first day of school.

Early childhood education has been under a microscope in the Panhandle for two years, culminating in a report released last week that indicates that sustainability and funding for early child care, preschool and parent education are top priorities across the region.

The study was conducted by the Educational Service Unit 13, Panhandle Partnership, Inc., and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

“The report details key findings based on extensive community mapping work and information obtained from four months of focus groups with more than 200 Panhandle residents across 15 communities,” reads a press release from last week’s unveiling.

“The need for high quality early childhood programs and services is urgent and growing,” said Jeff West, ESU 13 superintendent. “The collaborative report … summarizes information gathered from community members, parents and educators across the Panhandle about children, families and programs in each of the 15 participating communities and school districts. It also includes our new vision statement describing the bright future we imagine for young children.”

While the study determined that communities are proud of the existing programs for young children and their families, basic needs, the economy and access to affordable, high-quality child care and preschool were among the greatest concerns.

School districts in Chadron, Hemingford, Gordon-Rushville and Hay Springs all took part in the study.

“We thought it would be a great opportunity,” said Chadron Superintendent Dr. Caroline Winchester.

In addition to a Panhandle-wide look at the data, the report breaks down data for each community. Dawes County, for example, has a median household income of $41,038, but 17.8% of individuals live below the poverty level. That number rises to 21.9% below poverty level when only children under the age of 5 are considered. Chadron Public Schools has 48% of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunches.

In Sheridan County, 21.6% of children under 5 live below the poverty level, and the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches is 54% in Hay Springs and 64% in Gordon-Rushville. The data for Box Butte County indicates that just over 30% of children under 5 live below poverty level, with 39% of Hemingford students taking part in the free and reduced lunches program.

In Chadron and two other Panhandle school districts, a Sixpence grant helps provide training and education for early childcare providers. The program has been a blessing, Dr. Winchester said, and was unique in that each district had to apply for the funds individually but made it clear that the benefit would be spread across the Panhandle, as they share the knowledge and training throughout the region.

As other issues with education – particularly early childhood education – arise, the region will have to collaborate more and more, she said. Chadron’s FAST program, a transition program for incoming kindergartners also received praise during the study, but also is listed among the district’s challenges as there are not enough slots to meet the need.

Other challenges specific to Chadron included additional high-quality child care and preschool options, summer programs for school-aged children, parental education and health and wellness, including social and emotional health.

Many of the other school districts and communities cited similar points of pride, challenges and priorities.

The need for quality child care “is a big deal no matter where you live in the Panhandle,” said Dr. Winchester, who served on a panel of experts during last week’s release of the report.

Workforce development and funding are obstacles to providing that, she continued. An overall teacher shortage comes into play in early childhood care and education, as well, and sustaining programs long-term is a constant challenge.

“The vision of this…every child in the Panhandle should have the same opportunity,” Dr. Winchester said. “First we had to figure out where we all are in the PH. That was the intent of this particular study.”

Now that the data has been collected, the work will continue as stakeholders develop an action plan.

“The collaborative work between ESU 13, Panhandle Partnership and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute supports many outcomes and priorities of the strategic vision and direction of the State Board of Education and the Nebraska Department of Education,” said Dr. Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska’s Commissioner of Education. “The work in the Panhandle is poised to provide a model for school-community partnerships to serve young children and families throughout the state.”

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