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Detroit Lakes preschools seeing more demand

Community Alliance preschool teacher and director Nelaina Daggett says she is maxed out at 30 students at her preschool, and even began the year with a waiting list of 10. Daggett says with the demand on services, she hopes to open up another class in the future. DL NEWSPAPERS/Paula Quam

Detroit Lakes preschools are “happening” places these days, with climbing enrollment just about everywhere you go.

“We’re busting at the seams,” said Head Start Director Margaret Aho, holding up a long list of three and four year olds who are waiting to get in.

“There are almost 200 kids here (on the waiting list), with 125 of them being from Becker County,” she said, adding that her comprehensive list includes Mahnomen and Hubbard Counties as well.

“These kids are out there — they could potentially be enrolled here because they are all income eligible, but we just don’t have the funds or the room for them,” said Aho, adding that some of the children likely end up at other area preschools, while some simply won’t see a classroom until kindergarten.

“And it is really difficult to get them caught up because they have to know so much more now in kindergarten than they used to,” said Aho, who can barely dare to dream about opening up her program to little students of all income levels.

While she says she would love to see a day when all children enter kindergarten on an even playing field, right now she is still having to decide which students make the cut, and which ones don’t.

“We lost 29 children to sequestration last year,” she said, adding that most of the Head Start funding comes from the federal level, so cuts from the U.S. or state governments really are felt deepest by its smallest citizens.

At Head Start, there is no tuition, so it’s the place to try to get in if you’re a family that meets the criteria of poverty.

“Head Start is an anti-poverty program, so we just have to try to help the poorest of the poor,” she said, once again glancing down at her long waiting list.

The others

While the overwhelming demand at Becker County’s Head Start far outweighs the supply, its problems are felt by other area preschools as well.

At the Lincoln Education Center, which falls under the umbrella of the Detroit Lakes School District, there is rarely room at the inn.

A $33,000-per-year budget at Lincoln Ed gets quickly chewed up with families that didn’t make the cut over at Head Start. From there, they need paying families in order to run the program.

Although there are enough of those families willing and able to do that, Family Education and School Readiness Coordinator Coreen Swenson says the financial commitment can be what prevents even more demand on their services.

“There are those families who maybe don’t qualify for free or reduced services, but it’s still just too hard to pay for both preschool and (if the parents are working), for daycare as well,” said Swenson, who says there are families who have to pull their preschoolers out of the program because they are stuck in the middle of not being needy enough and not being wealthy enough.

“If there were more funding available, we could make it more affordable for those families,” she said, admitting that like Head Start, even if there were more funding, there’s still not enough space.

The private schools

Private preschools in the area are also seeing an uptick in enrollment, despite less financial support for families.

Community Alliance Preschool Teacher and Director Nelaina Daggett says demand for her program has also been increasing over the past few years.

“This year I had a waiting list of about 10 —we just filled up so fast last spring,” she said, adding that while it’s affirming, it also highlights the unmet need still out there.

In fact, she says she is working with the church board to expand into another room in the next couple of years, confident she’d have no problem filling them.

She’d also like to expand some of her part-time programs to full-day ones because she, too, sees parents struggling.

“It’s hard to pay for both daycare and preschool, so if we could make it so that they only have to pay one or the other, I think it could help people juggle it a little bit easier,” she said.

This is a concept that has proved popular at Laker Prep Preschool, which saw its enrollment go from eight in the fall of 2011 to its maximum capacity of 20 this year.

The school’s owner and operator, Mary Rotter, says she, too, has a waiting list for summer and only a couple of openings for the 2014-15 school year.

“I think people in this area just realize how important that early childhood education is now,” said Rotter, a former kindergarten teacher who sees the increasing demand for services like hers to the point where she’s even contemplating expansion.

A viable option

With the two-pronged problem of not enough preschool space in Detroit Lakes and not enough funds for some families, the idea of providing a quality early childhood education to all is not yet a reality.

But there is another option that has taken off in Becker County called “Parent Aware.”

It’s a $20 million program that started last year through the Minnesota Department of Education, which allocated those dollars to families that applied for “scholarships” in the amount of $5,000 per year.

Becker County, given its close proximity to the White Earth Indian Reservation and its “Rise to the Top” designation, was one of the first to receive the scholarship dollars.

For two years, families in need or those simply “stuck in the middle” have been receiving assistance for Parent Aware-rated facilities, such as Laker Prep Preschool, which rates at four out of four stars.

But to address the space issue, the Parent Aware program is also available to daycare providers as well.

“It’s a pretty rigorous program for child care providers to go through,” said Aho, adding that it’s a step some providers are taking in order to be able to help provide the children in their care with some preschool experience and assessments, even if they cannot be enrolled in an actual preschool.

“I believe if a child is enrolled in a 4-star child care facility, even if it isn’t a preschool, they are still getting a quality experience in that setting,” said Aho, adding that programs like this are an exciting step in the right direction, as lawmakers seem to be coming around to the idea of investing in this area.

“They’re listening to economists who have studied this and are now saying, ‘For every dollar we spend on early childhood education, we get $7 back down the line,’” said Aho. “And so now there are some very interesting conversations going on and some very exciting changes happening these days.”