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Park Rapids School to receive voluntary pre-K program funding

Park Rapids will be one of 74 towns throughout Minnesota to receive state funding in order to offer pre-k education tuition free. (Submitted photo)

The Park Rapids Area School District's Play And Learn School (PALS) was recently accepted into the state voluntary pre-kindergarten program through the Minnesota Department of Education.

Voluntary pre-K was established by Governor Mark Dayton and the 2016 Minnesota Legislature for the purpose to better prepare children to succeed in kindergarten. The funding allows school districts and charter schools with recognized early learning programs to incorporate a voluntary pre-K program into their systems, tuition free for students.

The new funding provides high-quality early learning programming to 74 school districts and charter schools throughout Minnesota, including Park Rapids.

According to Community Education Director Jill Dickinson, prior to receiving the funding, the school offered a school readiness program which was tuition-based.

"It works like students enrolled in K-12 that generate money based on their attendance. That is how the voluntary pre-K program is funded and now we don't have to charge tuition; it's free," Dickinson said. "Park Rapids was one of 74 towns in the state that got it. We were very lucky we got it. I just think it's so great that everyone can have equal preschool education for all 4-year-olds in Park Rapids. It's a great option for families."

Dickinson works in conjunction with Century Elementary Principal Jolene DeLaHunt.

"It's a partnership with Community Ed and the school," Dickinson explained. She handles the applications and paperwork with the state. "Whatever Community Ed offered in the past has been tuition-based. The application for funding was only open to public schools and charter schools, it wasn't open to private schools."

There was only so much funding available, Dickinson explained, with over 200 schools originally applying for the program. The schools interested were categorized based on the offering of free and reduced lunches and local poverty levels, and selected for the program based on that criteria.

"The governor is trying to get more funding to help more schools, but funding is never a for sure thing," Dickinson said.

Once a school is accepted into the program they don't lose the funding, but they are required to reapply each year.

"We do have to apply, but it's not like a grant. It's basically to let the state know we're going to do it again and if we want to expand our programming to include more numbers."

In order for a child to qualify for the Park Rapids program they must be 4 years old as of Sept. 4, 2017 and not yet 5 years old.

PALS offers four preschool options:

• Option 1: Two full days, Monday and Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

• Option 2: Two full days, Tuesday and Thursday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

• Option 3: Four half days, Monday through Thursday, 8 to 11:30 a.m.

• Option 4: Four half days, Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

With all of these options, children will be having lunch at school and there is a cost for that, however, the opportunity to apply for free or reduced lunches is available.

Busing for children will also be available through the school.

For children under the age of 4, there will still be a two-day program with a fee of $65 per month.

As part of Minnesota's E-12 education system, voluntary pre-k will be required to meet program expectations and follow the same general rules regarding such items as MARSS reporting, STAR reporting, expulsion, monitoring and compliance, professional development, teacher evaluation, Q Comp and inclusion of children with disabilities.

Voluntary pre-K will also come with its own program standards, such as providing instruction through play-based learning and coordinating an efficient transition to kindergarten.

Under state guidelines, the preschools are required to have one adult for every 10 children in the classroom. PALS employs three adults per classroom, with one licensed teacher and two paras.

The school began accepting applications March 1, and they asked that registration forms be submitted by March 17 in order to get a general idea of what options parents want and whether or not they will have adequate staffing for the 2017-18 school year.

"We'll still take enrollment after that date, but we need to know what people want," Dickinson explained. "Do they want the all-day programming? Do they want half day? And is there enough interest to add another classroom?"

"We really want to serve everyone who wants to attend," she added, saying that there will be no limit on enrollment.

PALS also collaborates with Head Start on transportation and planned activities and Head Start also offers options for education on a income-based tuition. Head Start can be contacted at 732-7204 for more information.

For applications and more information on the voluntary pre-k program, individuals can contact Jill Dickinson at Community Education by calling 237-6606.

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