Parent Aware provides grant, ratings
Parents just got another option to help get their children started in education at an early age.
Minnesota started the Parent Aware program a couple years ago in one county. It's now expanded to 10 counties, of which includes Becker County. The program will be statewide by 2015.
Not only does the state work with income-eligible families to provide funding for preschool for ages 3 to 5, but it also rates preschools and childcare facilities and gives parents a better idea of what those preschools have to offer.
The rating system
Since school districts and Head Start programs are state mandated, they are automatically given a four out of four stars rating. Privately owned preschools and childcare facilities are also being rated on the same scale.
There are 25 preschools and childcare facilities in Becker County listed on the Parents Aware website, www.parentawareratings.org. One of those belongs to Terrie Boyd, owner of Terrie's Tots Child Care in Detroit Lakes.
"Even those of us that have been at this for a long time, Parent Aware helps us improve upon what we are doing," Boyd said. "So much more is expected upon the first day of kindergarten than ever before, and we as parents and providers are the ones that must make the difference for them."
The rating system is based on a six-month process involving coaching, learning and training. The assessment done on each of the preschools looks at a number of proven quality-indicators and measures a number of kindergarten-readiness factors like physical health and well-being, teaching and relationships, assessment of child progress and teacher training and education.
"It gives me the ability to better explain why we do what we are doing," Boyd said. "I always knew I was doing good for the kids, but now I am able to use well researched information to support my processes and have a more accepted practice for assessing children's progress."
During and after the assessment, each Parent Aware participant is given access to quality improvement grants, consultants who coach them through the improvements needed to increase quality and free marketing materials that allow them to advertise their association with the program.
The opportunity to earn a Parent Aware rating is available for any licensed family child care provider and child care center.
The grant monies
Parent Aware is not tied to Head Start, though they both depend on family income. Head Start is both state and federally funded, while Parent Aware is simply funded through state monies.
Besides having a qualifying income, families must reside in Becker County to receive the funding, but they can use a preschool or childcare facility outside of the county.
"It allows funding for these families to go directly to the preschool or childcare facility. It (the funding) does not go to the family. It is the family who completes an application for it though," said Karrie Schultz, ECFE coordinator for the Frazee-Vergas District.
She said the funding has been used up for this year, but that doesn't mean some more won't be freed up either. Since most school programs run throughout the regular school year and the Parents Aware program is a full year that frees up some funds for possible summer classes.
"It's brand new. There are so many questions still being brought to their attention and looked into," Schultz said. "We are the first School Readiness to be using this in Becker County, otherwise it's been used through the childcare way, so that's exciting but a lot of work being the first one."
Although other preschool programs in the area may have applied for and been accepted as a rated program, Frazee's School Readiness is the only program that has parents applying for the scholarships so far, she said.
This funding isn't necessarily just to be able to send a child to preschool either. Schutlz said it's more to supplement what is already being taught to the children that qualify, meaning this could qualify them for an extra class or an extended one.
Families can qualify for up to $4,000 a year through this program.
Schultz said she already has four families who have applied for the funds, and four more families that are getting their applications in order to send in but are on a waitlist until more funding opens up.
"We're just on the cusp of some great things happening with early childhood ... from Obama's State of the Union emphasizing support and Minnesota is already on board. I feel we're very aggressive in that area and happy to be a part of that," Schultz said.
Extended day at LP-A
Through funding from Parent Aware scholarships, Lake Park-Audubon Elementary School and Mahube-Otwa Head Start are hoping to start an extended-day program for Head Start and Early Childhood students at Audubon.
LP-A Elementary staff members Sarah Vareberg and Ann Braseth are in the process of collecting parent surveys for students ages 3-4 who live in the Lake Park-Audubon area.
According to LP-A Elementary Principal Sam Skaaland, they need to have at least 10 parents commit their children to attending the program in order to be able to start hiring the necessary staff for expanding the program.
"Mahube-Otwa Head Start sees this as a good place to get a (full-day) program going because we have the space available right now," Skaaland said.
"We developed a written survey to send out to parents in the LP-A district, to determine if it was a need," said Mahube-Otwa Head Start coordinator Margaret Aho. "But the response was pretty low, so we decided to do a telephone survey of parents enrolled in the Head Start and School Readiness classrooms at Audubon, to try to determine if parents needed or wanted extended care for their children beyond the half-day services we currently have available."
Skaaland said they hope to complete the survey process within the next few weeks.
But in order to be able to begin hiring staff, they need parents to apply for the Parent Aware scholarship funding and commit to enrolling their child in the LP-A extended day program.
"It would be a huge advantage to parents," Skaaland added, because not only would they be leaving their child in a safe environment for the day, but the child would have the opportunity to enjoy expanded learning activities that would better prepare them for starting kindergarten.
"We're looking at having it go all the way to 6 p.m. if parents want that," he added. "The funding is there -- we need to determine the level of interest next.
"We have to have that commitment from parents that they are going to send their children here when we have this program available."
Though children already enrolled in Head Start would automatically qualify for enrollment in the extended day program, those who are enrolled in Early Childhood and School Readiness programs could also participate, for a fee, Skaaland said.
"We would like to get this program going by the end of March or early April, so we have things in place for the beginning of the next school year," he added.
If they have enough parents enroll their children in the program, and bring their scholarship funding with them, "it would pay for the staff, supplies, food, transportation --everything," Aho said.
One potential problem, she noted, is the fact that even if parents commit to the LP-A program, and receive the Parent Aware funding, they do not receive the entire grant up front.
"It's billed (to the state) at the end of each month," she said.
If a family were to move out of the district unexpectedly, "they take the scholarship with them," Aho said.
"It's a risk," she added. "We're being very careful, but this is untread territory. It's a learning curve for everyone."
Parents who are interested in applying for scholarship funding for their children through the Parent Aware program should contact scholarship program administrator Bonnie Devore at Mahube-Otwa Community Council, 218-732-7204.
Those who would like to learn more about the extended day preschool program at LP-A Elementary should contact Ann Braseth, Sarah Vareberg or Sam Skaaland at 218-439-3301.