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Creative partnerships required to expand Pre-K

Creative partnerships required to expand Pre-K

All the evidence shows that Pre-K is extremely valuable for young children. 90% of brain development takes place before year 5, but as all young parents know, high-quality Pre-K is becoming more expensive and more challenging to find for ALL families - lower-income families in particular.

When I joined the board 5 years ago, I was eager to expand Pre-K options within Fayetteville Public Schools, and I still am - but it’s not easy.

Pre-K is extremely difficult to fund in Arkansas. The state provides very little funding, so the 6 Pre-K classrooms FPS offers today are primarily funded by one-year grants, which must be applied for year after year just to continue what we have. Our Pre-K Director Kathleen Hale has been consistently successful at writing and receiving a Arkansas Better Beginnings grant from the state for our programs, but it requires a 40% local match, which also must be raised annually. The state funds are only $4900 per child, as compared to $7,413 per K-12 child.

District administrators are understandably hesitant to grow programs and add staff if funding is not guaranteed for more than one year.

We need sustainable Pre-K funding from the state, but we don’t have it. When I saw that Pre-K was touted as one of the focus areas of the LEARNS bill, I was excited - until I read the bill. There is ZERO new funding for Pre-K in LEARNS.

With little help from the state, FPS has still managed to make progress towards adding new Pre-K options over the past 5 years by leveraging creative partnerships.

In 2019, we renovated an underutilized building next to ALLPS, and offered a free lease to the Economic Opportunity Agency of Washington County. EOA runs all of the Head Start programs in Washington County, and through this creative partnership they now offer a Head Start at ALLPS. The federal Head Start program provides about double the per-child funding to agencies like EOA Washington County when compared to state pre-K funds. This partnership allows FPS to use our capital budget for facilities, while EOA Washington County handles the operating expenses, staffs the program, and manages the federal Head Start requirements.

This is a model we can look to replicate.

While serving on the City of Fayetteville’s COVID Economic Recovery Task Force, it became clear that the connections between Pre-K shortages and workforce shortages were more clear than ever before. The lack of affordable Pre-K particularly impacts workforce participation and income potential for women. Sensing political will to fund Pre-K using City American Rescue Plan funding, I was able to secure strong interest from City leaders toward providing a grant to the district to fund the renovation of a classroom for use as another Head Start. Unfortunately, the district was not able to identify an available classroom suitable for another Head Start partnership due to building capacity limitations, so we continue to pursue this funding to support one year of operating costs for one of our Pre-K classrooms.

But we are not stopping there. The Fayetteville Public Education Foundation has made Pre-K a cornerstone of its Capital campaign. This is a promising solution, as a sizable endowment could fund ongoing operating expenses for Pre-K, solving the root problem - lack of sustainable funding.

As we look to build and renovate our facilities, we should look at every opportunity to add Pre-K capacity - whether managed in-house by the District, or by replicating the Head Start partnership.

When we update our strategic plan in 2024, I will advocate for setting targets to add Pre-K capacity. I will continue to seek out new funding sources, such as City of Fayetteville ARPA, which may still be a possibility.

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