Tacoma Public Schools expands preschool programs, on track to meet some goals by 2017

In a classroom full of 3- and 4-year-olds, it’s tough for a teacher to compete when a rainbow suddenly bursts through the clouds just outside the window.

That was Maria Leal-Guzman’s challenge on a recent afternoon as she led a group of excited preschoolers at the Willard Early Learning Center, one of the places where Tacoma Public Schools is expanding its early-childhood-education efforts.

After lunch and some dancing to music, children sat down to practice their letter “H” sound. Then, it was time to brush teeth. Kids quickly forgot about the rainbow once Leal-Guzman brought out the toothbrushes, and they practiced their dental hygiene with gusto.

“They are learning to be part of a group, to follow a schedule,” says Leslie Meisner, director of several preschool programs for Tacoma Public Schools, including those at the Willard Center.

Preschool helps children move from self-awareness to group awareness, she said — an important skill they’ll need when they start kindergarten.

The school district opened the Willard Center in September in a vacant elementary school on South D Street, overlooking the Tacoma Dome.

Meisner, who has spent decades working in early-childhood education, said these kids often don’t have the same opportunities for early learning and social interaction that kids from more affluent families have. That means they might start elementary school with fewer skills than their peers.

Tacoma is trying to close the gap. The district now offers preschool at 30 of its 35 elementary schools.

Free programs include Head Start, a federally funded program for low-income children who are at least 3 years old, and ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program), a similar program funded by the state. Both have the same goals: early learning, family support, parent involvement, and child health and nutrition.

Head Start serves 563 children in Tacoma schools. ECEAP serves 162 Tacoma kids.

The district also operates:

The district is also planning for its second early learning center, in the wake of Willard’s opening this year. The new one will be based at McCarver Elementary School, in the Hilltop neighborhood.

Early learning centers are designed to be a one-stop destination for families, offering a range of parent support in addition to preschool classes and services for kids.

Last week,the Tacoma School Board received an update on its year-old preschool expansion initiative.

Board members last year set a goal of increasing preschool participation to more than 50 percent of the more than 2,400 eligible children district-wide by 2017. So far, they’re ahead of schedule; the report notes a preschool enrollment of nearly 1,400 this year.

They also want to ensure that children in district preschools reflect the district’s overall demographics. The report notes a mixed bag on that score; some minority groups, such as Hispanics, are highly represented in preschools while others, such as blacks, are below the demographic mark.

The Tacoma board report arrived the same week that President Obama convened a White House Summit on early education, where he announced $1 billion in public and private spending on programs for preschoolers.

At the state level, Gov. Jay Inslee recommended Monday that the Legislature increase funding for ECEAP by $79.8 million, which his office says would provide 6,358 more state preschool spots throughout Washington.

Tacoma Public Schools currently receives just under $1 million from the state for ECEAP and $5.1 million from the federal government for Head Start programs; district funding and other contributions add nearly another $1.3 million.

In total, Tacoma has budgeted nearly $9.4 million for preschool programs this year.

One other goal in Tacoma is building what educators call a unified preschool-through-grade-5 school environment, known as P-5. That’s a change from many years of treating kindergarten as the starting point.

Preschool is a relatively new venture for most Tacoma elementary schools, explained Jennifer Traufler, district director of student services.

“We have been talking with our principals about building a permanent P-5 environment,” Traufler said.

That means welcoming the newest, youngest learners at each school, as well as working out practical matters such as shared access to gyms and playgrounds.

School Board Vice President Karen Vialle asked Superintendent Carla Santorno to look at developing a board policy that would designate Tacoma Public Schools as a “Pre-K through 12 school district.”

Santorno agrees that such a move would make a powerful statement.

Meisner, the veteran early childhood educator, is glad to see her field and its teachers in the spotlight — “to finally reach a place where early learning is respected.”