SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — The Springfield School District hopes to launch a multifaceted and collaborative program this fall to simultaneously tackle the biggest issues impairing kindergarten and school readiness, including lagging academic and social-emotional skills, insufficient childcare to support working families, impacts on children from trauma or adverse experiences and inability to access early interventions.

The Southern Vermont Education Hub, a multi-partner initiative by the school district and community partners, aims to launch an innovative Pre-K program that would combine integrated special education services, an extended day childcare and an early child education (ECE) certification class and workforce development component.

A substantial number of Springfield children are adversely impacted by obstacles and impacts at home, both before and during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, according to District Pre-K Coordinator Rachael Hunter.

In a presentation on Monday to the Springfield School Board, Hunter noted that Springfield has the highest per-capita rate of heroin usage in Vermont and 33 Springfield children under age nine are in state custody. Forty-eight percent of Springfield children under age six are living in poverty and food insecurity over the last year has increased 6%.

Since 2019 The number of Springfield students with an individualized education plan (IEP) has increased 300%. Statewide that number has only increased 12% over five years.

“We need to figure out how to possibly respond to what is going on,” Hunter said.

The last 13 months of the pandemic exacerbated the problems, Hunter explained. A lack of childcare openings kept many children at home and isolated while unemployment or the inability to work or socially interact weighed down families with greater stress.

During the pandemic, pre-k program enrollment in Springfield dropped 27% and 57% of Springfield kindergarten students lost at least six months of educational time.

“What that means is our kiddos are coming into kindergarten and not necessarily ready to learn,” Hunter told the board. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have great programs but that we have children who need more than they are able to get and who cannot access the programs or services they need.”

Pending funding the district hopes to open an integrated, all-day preschool inside the River Valley Technical Center, the district’s career and technical education school, in September. The preschool curriculum and activities will be “developmentally appropriate for all [pre-k] children” with an emphasis on developing academic and socio-emotional growth toward kindergarten readiness, Hunter said.

The program will aim to counter the traumatic or adverse childhood experiences (ACE) that impede a child’s readiness for school, according to Hunter. The curriculum, activities and supports will center around building social emotional skills, a positive attitude toward school, daily routines and positive peer relationships.

In addition the program will provide after-school childcare with “wrap-around services” to assist working families with later work schedules.

“Two big challenges to increase workforce participation rates are childcare and transportation, particularly childcare during the second-shift time frame,” said Scott Farr, director of the River Valley Technical Center.

River Valley Technical Center will house two classrooms for the program on the third floor of its building, as space has become more available with more Springfield tech-ed students participating in courses remotely, Farr said.

But these classrooms will also function as a hands-on learning workplace for a new early-child education certification at the tech-ed school. High school students who enroll in the course will work in the pre-school as a practicum of their course study. Completion of the course will earn credits toward a student’s ECE certification.

The course is designed as part of a “workforce pipeline” aimed to bring new educators into the early-child education and childcare industry, which is struggling with staffing due to an aging workforce, Hunter said.

In conversations with local childcare centers, Hunter said that a number of childcare programs stated intent to either close or reduce capacity in the coming future, which could result in a total of loss of approximately 30 enrollment spaces for children.

The district hopes this program will produce long term savings by reducing the number of Springfield students who require intervention services or one-on-one assistance during their K-12 education.

Many components of this project are still in planning, such as the workforce development piece, Hunter said.

The district also needs to finalize the funding plan for the pre-school. According to Superintendent Zach McLaughlin, the district has been trying to confirm approval by the state Agency of Education to use funds received through ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) to open the pre-school. ESSER funds were authorized under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and awarded by state education agencies to qualifying schools to address the impact of the novel coronavirus on their schools.

According to McLaughlin the Vermont Agency of Education has not authorized whether schools will be able to use ESSER funds for this particular purpose. McLaughlin said he is optimistic the funding use will be approved though if not the partners will need to seek other sources.

The Southern Vermont Education Hub is a collaboration of multiple community partners, including the Springfield School District, River Valley Technical Center, Springfield Area Child Center, and the Springfield Regional Development Corporation.

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