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Preparing for kindergarten: State grant provides additional preschool program in Willmar

Briana Sanchez / Tribune Preschool teacher Meghan Reiman does an activity with her class Jan. 18 at Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar. The class is supported by $155,000 in grant funding the Willmar School District received to expand prekindergarten. 1 / 2
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Preschool teacher Meghan Reiman does an activity Jan. 18 with her class at Jefferson Learning Center in Willmar. The class is supported by $155,000 in grant funding the Willmar School District received to expand prekindergarten.2 / 2

WILLMAR — At reading time, about a dozen squirmy 4-year-olds sit on a brightly colored rug listening, more or less, to teacher Meghan Reiman.

Reiman read a book, "The Mitten" by Jan Brett, about a boy who loses one of his treasured mittens in the woods. A succession of animals snuggled into his soft, warm mitten to keep warm until they all flew out after a bear sneezed.

To illustrate the book, each of the children had a picture of an animal that found shelter in the mitten. As Reiman reached the page about the fox or mole or badger crawling into the mitten, the children with those pictures came forward and put them into a white bag symbolizing the mitten.

Reading time came after snack time and before small-group time in the Jefferson Learning Center classroom, which is supported by a state grant to implement voluntary prekindergarten programs around the state.

Willmar was one of a few school districts in west central Minnesota to receive the grants last fall. The 2016 Legislature had appropriated $25 million to provide free prekindergarten for more than 3,000 4-year-olds.

Willmar's $155,000 in grant funding provided a program for 30 children who participate in a half-day program, half in the morning and half in the afternoon. It offers age-appropriate opportunities and play-based learning to help 4-year-olds to get ready for kindergarten.

The additional classroom provided by the grant brings the number of 4-year-olds served in the district to about one-third the number of children usually enrolled in kindergarten, said Superintendent Jeff Holm.

The other children are served through a variety of programs, including Community Education and Recreation and highly rated day care programs in the community.

Willmar has a variety of programs available, and this is one more, said Jodi Wambeke, coordinator of early childhood/family education for the district.

The goal of the community's broader early childhood services is to give young children the tools they need to be ready for kindergarten, she said. "It's not our intent to put our childcare providers out of business. ... It's to prepare kids for kindergarten."

The children in the class were admitted to mirror the demographics of the school district, Wambeke said.

Some of the students in the classroom might not be in a preschool program without the grant, she said. The community's network of preschool education efforts, like the United Way's Growmobile, have helped build trust across the community. The district's cultural liaisons also help build relationships with populations newer to the community.

Willmar was able to implement the grant fairly quickly, in part, because the community already met some of the requirements, including having prekindergarten teachers included in the faculty bargaining unit.

Providing English Language Learner services and providing adequate hours of service were part of the requirements.

Holm said the plan once the district opens its third elementary school this fall is to begin to develop a program for 4-year-olds at every elementary school. "That could still take some time," he added, and a lack of state funding will be the biggest obstacle.

"We are figuring it out as we go," Wambeke said. "Our vision is we would like 4-year-olds and their families to feel like part of those buildings."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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