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Waves of uncertainty

Backlash prompts further discussion of CCA’s ’19-’20 preschool plan
Clear Creek Amana Community School District

OXFORD– The School Board of Directors for the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) Community School District approved a significant change to the preschool program for the 2019-2020 academic year. Currently the district offers a full-day program with state grant money paying for the morning session (aka “Voluntary”) and families paying tuition for the afternoon (aka “Enterprise”). However, CCA has been accumulating a surplus balance on the state-funded portion while routinely running a deficit on the private pay. District Superintendent Tim Kuehl told the board in November the deficit hit $70,000 in the past school year.

In addition limited space, particularly at North Bend Elementary (NBE) in North Liberty, has historically led to many families being turned away, and as Amana Elementary Principal Ben Macumber stated, the “neediest” families not being served. Also, Kuehl said, with fewer children in the afternoons– and with the academic portion of the day held in the mornings– the district has been overstaffing the preschool program, which contributes to the deficit.

The new plan, which passed Monday, Nov. 19, on a 3-1 vote (Bob Broghammer, Jennifer Mooney and Terry Davis in favor, Kathy Swenka opposed, Nikki Knapp, Matt McAreavy and Steve Swenka absent), offers a morning and an afternoon session– students would be enrolled in one or the other– to be paid for through the state grant. Doing so means more students would be served, waiting lists and a “lottery” for open spots would theoretically end and staff would be better utilized. The plan calls for classes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday reserved for professional development. Kuehl and Macumber have both stated there would be ample opportunities for staff to pick up hours on Wednesdays (when not in professional development) if desired while working a 32.5-hour week with a full benefits package. The plan also includes bussing preschool students– a first for the district– to and from homes, neighborhoods and licensed daycare providers within the district to ease transportation burdens on the families.

Reaction to the plan was swift, with parents and faculty in attendance shaking their heads in opposition and becoming visibly upset. Kuehl speculated on their concerns in an interview a few days later, saying, “Some of the associates are upset because it reduces their hours. But what we’ve talked to them about is, we have more than enough other jobs they could pick up (on Wednesdays). We were very conscientious about not creating a situation that would remove their health insurance benefits, so those will all be maintained.”

Kuehl also noted individual personal situations related to preschool/childcare for their own children also likely played a role in the reactions. “We met with the teachers to go through things, figure out what we were missing, and frankly they were very positive about the overall plan and how it’s going to serve kids. But then you get into some of the personal issues, and that’s where folks have concerns.”

Those concerns took center stage Wednesday, Dec. 19, during the board’s regular monthly meeting at Clear Creek Elementary (CCE) in Oxford. A capacity crowd of parents and pre-K staff packed into the second floor classroom the board meets in. Five attendees spoke during community and public forum, a time set aside during each regular meeting where the board receives comments but cannot respond or engage speakers.

Concerns about “wrap-around” daycare, or before and after school programming for the kids, either through the district or by a private daycare provider such as Little Clippers or Sprout Kids Academy were raised as many morning students would need somewhere to go before the 8:30 a.m. start time, and then need someplace for the afternoon and into the evening before rejoining their families. Likewise, many afternoon students would need a care provider for the mornings before their session started. Allied with these issues was the potential for children being in multiple locations during the day, and difficulties this would impose upon parents. Educational, emotional and social impacts on the children were raised due to less hours of instruction per week, moving between different facilities and having multiple teachers and associates leading to a lack of consistency.

Other concerns involved having four-year-olds on school busses with questions about restraints and adult staff (monitors) to ensure the little tykes could safely get on and off the bus, into their seats, would stay in their seats, etc. It was stated that the State of Iowa requires a 1:12 ratio for preschoolers on a bus, which could conceivably mean three monitors (depending on how many students were riding the bus) in addition to the driver. It was also stated restraints are required.

Another concern criticized the lack of public input regarding the change ahead of the board’s November vote, and lack of communication to parents, and/or contradictory information provided when compared with information coming from private daycare centers. The subject of Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) was brought up with questions if off-site providers would be able to properly handle “our smallest students with these highest needs.” In addition, dropping the preschool students from 30 hours of instruction to only 12 was questioned, and it was stated neither community members nor CCA staff members were made aware or consulted during the decision making process.

The board heard a dire warning from a staff member who said, “With a full day, as we have now, teachers are able to cover the academic, social and emotional growth.” Going to a half-day session, she said, “The focus will undoubtedly be on academics alone. The teachers are going to have to cram the lessons into two completely different sets of students in what little time they have with them.” Eliminating naptime, which she said was critical, sets up “a perfect storm for teacher stress, ineffectiveness and burnout.” It was noted North Liberty residents have at least 33 options for preschool/daycare while Oxford has none outside of CCE (and one in Amana), leaving residents on the western side of the district with few options for the aforementioned wrap around daycare and leading to the necessity of kids being bussed.

The board also was taken to task by a former daycare director for putting the preschool emphasis on academics rather than daycare. “The district is responsible for educating our children, but that education takes a much different look when we look at preschool. I’m afraid you’re misinformed of what early childhood education looks like. It is consistency, routines, social-emotional development and the ability to control one’s emotions, feelings and tendencies. These are what occurs in an all-day program.” The board was also criticized for having multiple discussions regarding changes to the district’s logo while spending mere minutes on the preschool proposal before voting on it. “This will have 100 percent effect on student achievement,” she said noting the logo changes will have a 0 percent impact on student achievement. She also implored the board to look at all possible options.

The board dedicated part of their Wednesday, Jan. 2, work session to addressing and discussing many of the issues raised during the Dec. 19 meeting. Supt. Kuehl ran through a list of concerns clarifying the district’s position and refuting some of the statements that had been made. Macumber also gave a second presentation on the plan (the first having been at the November meeting).

Kuehl reiterated the need to do something different from the current programming due to the need to turn kids away (lack of space), challenges with meeting the needs of ECSE students (again due to a lack of space), “not reaching our neediest families” and the surplus in state dollars (morning session) versus the deficit generated in the afternoon sessions.

Part of the ECSE challenge, Macumber said, is from having to leave spots open for those students, which limits even further the number available at North Bend. Additional spots will be available at NBE starting this fall, both Kuehl and Macumber said. Currently Amana Elementary, Clear Creek Elementary (Oxford) and the Little Clippers Child Development Center each have 19 preschool students with 20 at North Bend Elementary (North Liberty), 27 at Sprout Kids Academy and 71 at Tiffin Elementary.

Under the new plan, Tiffin could accommodate 120 in three classrooms (20 students per section, six sections total) while North Bend could grow to 80 students in two rooms (again 20 students per section and four sections in total). Typically, Macumber said, at least 50 are turned away from North Bend currently due to the lack of space.

“We’re all at capacity now,” he added.

Macumber gave an estimate of known students for next year (2019-2020 academic year) with the caveat not all students identified as needing special education (ECSE) are officially enrolled, but are already planned for. Also, the numbers can and often do change on a daily basis, particularly as the enrollment period for next year hasn’t opened yet. Based on morning and afternoon sessions, Macumber said there were at least 34 students for Clear Creek Elementary, 18 for Amana, 26 already for Tiffin and 51 for North Bend with 30 for Sprout and nine going to Little Clippers.

Sprout and Little Clippers, through partnering with CCA, follow all regulations and guidelines for preschool and utilize the same curriculums the district does.

Kuehl spoke to concerns staff were unaware of the proposed changes and were left out of the planning process, saying, “While we did not consult with guidance counselors or other classroom teachers, we did consult with some preschool teachers. First, principals and the preschool teachers gave input into what an ‘ideal’ program, with our situation, would look like. Then as administrators, we met and processed that and put together a draft, and met in this room with all the preschool teachers to hash through that and see from their lens what made sense, what didn’t and what we needed to tweak.” It was not, Kuehl said, “Something we just randomly made up and didn’t run by those folks.”

Macumber added, “This has been a three-year conversation. It was not a surprise to anybody. We’ve taken this back to our buildings, we’ve taken this back to our teachers. It’s not like they were surprised we were having this conversation.”

Board member Matt McAreavy pointed out it was a surprise to the school board. “I knew nothing about you doing this until two weeks before we were voting on it. So, God bless you for working hard; it took you three years to do it, but I think we probably should’ve been brought into it a little bit earlier.” McAreavy said the board trusts the administrators’ judgment, “But that’s a heck of a lot.”

Kuehl addressed the educational programming for the preschool students noting the district uses the ‘Gold Standard’ teaching strategies curriculum. Gold, which was created by Gold Standard Child Care and Preschool in Las Vegas and is widely used, includes 32 objectives “that are predictive of future school success” and “cover all areas of the child including: social emotional, literacy, math, physical and cognitive skills,” according to Macumber, who elaborated on Gold. He said through ongoing observations, the teachers are able to determine a student’s progress and current level on each of those objectives. Teachers are able to gather information with which to determine what the student has learned, and what their needs are with an eye toward readiness for kindergarten.

Preschool students also receive Positive Behavior Instructional Support (PBIS), which is used district-wide and focuses on positive behavior and eliminating negative behavior through extensive use of positive verbal praise and stating expectations and “redirections” (behavior correction) in a positive way as well. “It’s a common language, common expectations,” Macumber said. “It’s (used) state wide; it’s phenomenal.” CCA also uses a curriculum called “Handwriting Without Tears” to teach preschoolers to identify letters, letter sounds and numbers through music, play and hands-on materials. In addition, the district also utilizes “Second Step,” a curriculum dedicated to developing skills such as: paying attention (and other listening skills), empathy, managing emotions, friendship skills and problem solving, and transitioning to kindergarten.

Macumber said with PBIS and Second Step there is a “continuum of services in meeting those social and emotional needs.”

Board member Nikki Knapp asked about the conversations with the teachers and their reactions to the plan. “I feel like instructionally, (they were) about as close to 100 percent as you could possibly be, they were onboard,” Kuehl said. “Their concerns were around associate hours.”

“Their concerns were on the hours,” Macumber added. “There are some districts that A, don’t bus, and B, don’t provide health insurance to their staff. There were concerns we were just plotting to cut their hours down to 25 hours per week. There is absolutely no way in the world we would take something as great as what we have right now and try to mess with it in a way we would push great people out of our doors. We don’t want that. We want to serve as many people as possible.”

To address the need for wrap-around care the district has a 28E agreement with Little Clippers, and with room available at CCE and depending on enrollment/needs, the private provider could offer the service in Oxford. Macumber said using space in CCE is contingent upon approval from the State Department of Human Services, but was optimistic permission would be granted.

Kuehl said of childcare, “We’re looking at options in this building (CCE), at Amana, and at Oak Hill (opening in August) for childcare, which obviously would work out pretty well with Tiffin Elementary. We’ve also had some discussions about possibly contracting with and leasing out space in our West Campus (building) or (current) District Office (in Oxford) if folks were interested in utilizing those to provide daycare.” However, he conceded, “That doesn’t always get people what they want. I don’t know where district responsibility for some of that starts and ends.” Kathy Swenka said finding a wrap around option for Oxford should be given a high priority. Kuehl agreed saying, “There should be one in this building.” Macumber said he wants as many options as possible. “I want to be able to put the information together, say this is what we have at all the sites, and then let people contact those facilities.”

Macumber told the Board, “You’re getting a lot of great questions and a lot of great people coming to these discussions and offering input. I’ll tell you what you’re not hearing is people who are desperate to get into North Bend or Oxford. They’re in tears because they didn’t get their first choice, and tears because they can’t afford the full day. Absolute tears and devastated because we’re not busing them to where they need to go. That eliminates a ton of people.” The Iowa City Community School District, he noted, does not bus preschool kids, but Cedar Rapids does, “And it’s a thing of beauty what they’re doing.” Macumber added, “I cannot stress enough, people who are in tears because we don’t provide those. Under-privileged families are not coming to the school board and begging you to make changes.”

Child care offerings, in district buildings or through local providers, will be numbers driven. Macumber said the district will be publicizing the preschool program as widely within the district as possible to reach as many families as they can, especially the under-served.

Kuehl addressed transportation issues, stating while the board may opt to make it a district policy, “Restraints, on big busses, are not a requirement, and there is not an adult-to-student ratio specified. And like I’ve told you before, we’re not going to put, even if we have a little bus, we’re not going to put a driver alone with a bus full of four-year-olds.” CCA will have monitors on the busses, Kuehl said, with the potential for the board to specify more monitors onboard for a rural route and fewer on a city route in response to concerns raised by Swenka about smaller kids, who may need help from an adult to get into a seat.

“But those things (monitors and restraints) are not state law,” Kuehl continued, “And currently, all of our preschoolers, every year, take field trips on our big busses as they are right now. And I’ve never had a parent complain or share a bad experience.”

Kuehl added a conversation is needed about unregistered daycares, as DHS regulations prohibit busses from picking up or dropping off at them. A work-around, however, would be to have established bus stops nearby. “We very much want to be creative and meet as many needs as possible,” Macumber said. Ultimately, Kuehl pointed out, it’s another case of needing enrollment data to determine where the students will be, and where they will need to go.

Kuehl also told the board that if they were to reverse their decision and go back to the current all-day model, which he said he believes would be the wrong way to go, “We have to do some things differently.” Chief among the changes, he said, would be to charge the going rate for daycare for the afternoon sessions. “I also think we have to look at why are we paying certified teachers’ salaries for that afternoon (non-instructional) time. I don’t think we should be, and I think you’ll get a lot of backlash about that if we go that way. I don’t think its right. I think we have great, certified people. We should be using them all day, which is why I think a.m./p.m. is a good thing.” The district also should staff according to enrollments, Kuehl said, “This year, our afternoon numbers have stayed higher than in the past, but there have been times when we’ve been way over-staffed in the afternoon, which isn’t right either.”

“We can’t continue as we were,” Kuehl said. “I think what you’ve approved, while not perfect, is better and heading in the right direction.”

Building current capacity

Amana Elementary 19 40

Clear Creek Elementary 19 40

North Bend Elementary 20 80

Tiffin Elementary 71 120