By PETER HUSSMANN
The Newton Community Board of Education approved a measure to apply for a state grant to fund the start of a free pre-school program next school year to be housed at Emerson Hough.
The school board voted unanimously to apply for a $268,000 grant under the Iowa Department of Education's Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for Four-Year-Old Children that would be used to provide early childhood education services for as many as 76 students.
The district is almost ensured of receiving the award after the state changed the application process from an competitive-based award to general allocation in an effort to get more school districts in the state to provide early education opportunities for preschoolers.
With that change, however, comes reduced state funding that will require the district to scale back its initial effort at starting the program. Last year, before the board voted to pull its application over concerns of its strength on a competitive basis, the district had hoped to be able to provide the service for as many as 150 to 160 children with programs based in both district buildings and at private provider locations.
In its application, the district states that it intends to target children in families qualifying under the free and reduced lunch program. School officials said about 20 percent of new kindergartners have not been exposed to education programs.
School district officials plan to house four sections of the free preschool program in the north wing of Emerson Hough. The program will run side-by-side with the district's early childhood special education program, as well as the current Head Start.
Some consideration had been given to housing the program at Berg Middle School, not the most conducive environment. By housing all the sections at Emerson Hough, teachers will be able to collaborate on the education program. In addition, the facilities are already configured according to early childhood education facility standards.
While school board members voiced concern that, as has happened recently, the state may renege on its funding promises once the district begins to provide the program. District officials do not think that will happen because some districts will likely not apply for the available funding.
"If I were to bet my own money, I'd bet we'll get a little more (than the allocation sought)," said Superintendent Steve McDermott. "Someday we'll look at 4-year-olds as kindergartners. I'm confident at this point."
After using the state grant money to get the program going next fall, the students in the preschool program will be counted in the district's state foundation aid count and receive 6/10ths of full student funding under the formula. Money in the program may be rolled over to the following year to allow for the addition of sections for preschoolers. Future students would likely be housed within current private program operations.
The district's application estimates there are 270 eligible 4-year-olds in the school district.