City’s preschool initiative highlights growing appetite for early learning despite funding uncertainty

In a darkened room not far from where the mayor was cutting a giant red ribbon and punch was being served, a trio of 2-year-olds was curled up on cots, undisturbed by the stream of visitors peeking their heads into their nap room.

The sleepy toddlers are among the 120 children expected to attend Strong Start Academy, a preschool for children ages birth to 5. Located in a freshly renovated building — the former Nevada State Museum in downtown Las Vegas’ sprawling Lorenzi Park — the academy is unique because the city itself has been a major partner.

Variety Early Learning Center had been looking for a new facility to replace its 63-year-old building and set its sights on the former museum. But as board member Ron Bonilla puts it, Variety was taking too long getting renovations done; that’s when the city jumped in, applied $4 million in redevelopment funds to overhaul the building and took the project over the finish line.

The center, which opened on Monday, can accommodate up to 184 children, up from the 120-child capacity of the old building. It expects to serve children across the income spectrum, including those who can pay full price and those who receive child care subsidies from the state. (Subsidies are hard to come by — limited government funding means only 2.3 percent of children from families making less than 200 percent of the poverty level receive them.)

The center’s pre-K component, which targets 4-year-old children from low-income families, is free, but other programs offered vary in price depending on the parents’ income level and grants available to offset costs.

With early childhood education programs somewhat scarce in Nevada — and public schools too crunched for space to expand pre-K programs very much —  advocates are welcoming all the help they can get even if it’s not from traditional partners like a school district.

Sherhonda Simon, left, is helped by Cassandra Adamson as she enrolls her children in the Strong Start Academy at Lorenzi Park in Las Vegas, on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. The academy, operated by the Variety Early Learning Center, is the first of two that will focus on providing quality education and care to children before they start kindergarten. Photo by Daniel Clark.

“We’re hoping this is just the beginning of the effort with the city and we can use it as an example, not only for other jurisdictions throughout the state of Nevada, but nationally,” said Denise Tanata, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance and part of a working group that helped bring the project to fruition.

A second Strong Start Academy is scheduled to open later this month, and Bonilla said Henderson Mayor Debra March has expressed interest in the project as well.

State of early childhood education in Nevada

Nevada’s long had a meager early childhood education system. While there are more than 226,000 Nevada children between birth and 5 years old, the system only has capacity to serve about 49,000 of them, according to the Children’s Advocacy Alliance. The state also ranks near the bottom for child-care affordability.

A coalition of groups including the Children’s Advocacy Alliance have tried to boost that through the Strong Start Campaign. The campaign hopes to change the mindset that child care and preschool is babysitting, instead emphasizing that 90 percent of a child’s brain development happens before the age of 5 and early intervention can be decisive.

Nevada has been able to ramp up its preschool capacity through a four-year pre-K development grant that includes $44 million from the federal government and a $23 million state match. The state had failed to win federal Race to the Top grants in part because it didn’t have a robust preschool system, Tanata said, and the pre-K development grant was meant to help Nevada rise to the challenge so it could qualify for the funding later thus maintain its new capacity.

At full capacity, the program will have created 1,560 new pre-K seats and expanded 1,430 half-day slots to full-day. But it’s now uncertain whether serious federal funding will be available to expand pre-K when the grant ends in 2018.

“I would feel very safe to say that access to high quality early childhood education isn’t a priority of the current administration,” Tanata said. “With everything else that’s being proposed to be cut, I just think the most that we could hope for over the next couple of years is keeping what we have.”

Beyond the match in the pre-K development grant, new state funding has been more focused on raising the quality of preschools and child care centers than the quantity. Those initiatives include working on a Quality Rating Improvement System that helps child-care centers meet higher standards, a scholarship program to help child-care center workers obtain degrees and an effort to test children and determine what effects preschool has on their academic performance.

Patti Oya of Nevada’s Office of Early Learning and Development said the results of new screenings starting this year could demonstrate benefits from the early childhood initiatives.

“Especially kids who are low-income — they need the high-quality piece and if they’re not getting it and not school-ready, they’re just getting off to a bad start,” she said. “We’re hoping that at least our pre-K kids in the high-quality centers will do well.”

But those projects are all happening in a climate of uncertainty. Beyond the limited-time grant, a legislatively approved infusion of welfare funds for the child care subsidy program this past session is only a one-time fix.

“The state is kind of bracing for that funding not to continue and really trying to look aggressively at what other opportunities are out there to supplement that and sustain these programs,” she said.

Supporters of the Strong Start Academy, who say they believe the program is one-of-a-kind in Nevada, see a unique role for cities in meeting demand for preschool and child care. They can serve as a “convener” to bring together public agencies, child care providers, grant funding and nonprofits.

Mayors unanimously approved a resolution in 2014 vowing to create an “Early Learning Nation” by 2025, and the National League of Cities is embarking on a project to help cities enhance their early child education systems and test what works and what doesn’t.

Goodman, whose work in education includes founding a private school called The Meadows, has been at the forefront of the initiative. The city now boasts a Department of Youth Development and Social Innovation designed to supplement education through initiatives such as before- and after-school programming as well as community partnerships like the Strong Start Academies.

A pre-kindergarten class is seen at Richard C. Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

What the school district provides

Clark County School District officials know that only a slice of kindergarteners entering the K-12 system participated in some form of preschool.

All they have to do is look at their own enrollment numbers: Last year, 11,428 children — ages 3 to 5 — attended preschool programs offered by the school district. The total number of kindergarteners each year, however, is closer to 25,000, said Julie Kasper, the school district’s early childhood director.

“We know there’s more out there,” she said, referring to children who need preschool opportunities.

The school district has 483 preschool programs that serve general education and special education students, Kasper said. The funding sources for the programs vary, with some connected to Zoom schools, which receive extra state funding for students learning English, and Title 1 schools, which use federal funds to provide additional services for students from low-income families.

The school district also operates early-childhood programs through a combination of state and federal grant money, Kasper said. The 4-year-olds enrolled in these “Nevada Ready!” programs, which rely on the pre-K development grant, attend preschool for at least 25 hours per week.

The school district plans to offer 31 “Nevada Ready!” preschool programs this school year, up from 20 last year, Kasper said.

While space remains an issue, Kasper said the school district wants to see continued expansion of its pre-K programming that exposes children to bigger vocabulary words, letters, shapes, colors and numbers in addition to teaching them social and self-regulation skills.

Equally important: Instilling in children the belief that learning is fun, she said.

“If they have that foundation, then the learning becomes more fluid and easier for them,” Kasper said.

As for what the school district will do if the federal pre-K funding dries up, Kasper said she didn’t know.

The need for early-childhood programs

Funding uncertainties didn’t dampen the spirits inside the Strong Start Academy last week when the school celebrated its grand opening. Local dignitaries, including the mayor and council members, toured the building that officials hope will be full of youngsters soon.

The preschool, operated by Variety Early Learning Center, is still accepting applications.

A classroom is seen during the grand opening of the first Strong Start Academy at Lorenzi Park in Las Vegas, on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. The academy, operated by the Variety Early Learning Center, is the first of two that will focus on providing quality education and care to children before they start kindergarten. Photo by Daniel Clark.

“We definitely want to make sure we have a lot of slots for our low-income families,” said Lisa Morris Hibbler, the city’s director of Youth Development and Social Innovation. “They’re the one that often times don’t have choice, and a lot of people with means have choice. This was really about making sure that all children had access to high-quality pre-K.”

Sayonara Harris, the program director for Variety Early Learning Center, knows the need for quality early-childhood programming is strong. She said the education levels of children who enter the learning center vary greatly.

“Some of them don’t know the alphabet,” she said. “Some of them can’t count. A lot of kids don’t speak well or at all.”

But she also witnesses the great strides children can make after being in an educational environment, especially if parents reinforce learning at home. That’s why the learning center requires parent engagement.

Harris has a mantra she uses to describe the learning center: “We don’t babysit children. We nurture them.”

She points to a brightly colored activity table as proof. The table’s surface boasts rulers and numbers, and objects of various shapes sit on top. As children “play” at the table, teachers observe and ask them questions that guide learning about everything from colors and numbers to weights and measurements.

Although these youngsters are years away from graduating high school and choosing a career path, Harris believes it’s never too early to show them the options that education can provide. She has a stack of posters featuring men and women in math- and science-oriented careers — such as astronauts, engineers and scientists — that she plans to hang throughout the building.

“They are our future,” she said of her students, “and we have to protect them.”