Cooperative effort brings Little Friends back

Preschool program kicks off Wednesday

— When Little Friends Preschool and Day Care closed down earlier this summer, it looked as if South Routt parents had just lost a long-standing asset to their community.

But now preschool is back and organizers of the revamped program want parents to know the new program is here to stay.

Through the cooperative efforts of the Soroco School District, Little Friends Board of Directors and the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, a much smaller version of what was will begin Wednesday.

Cindy Ashley, who will be teaching the 15 children in the program, said she will spend the next nine months developing a lasting, quality program upon which to build the future.

The preschool runs Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., with Friday open for Ashley to meet with parents and plan for the following week.

"An important part of this program is the accountability factor," Ashley said. "Individual goals have been set for each child that both the parents and myself will work together to see accomplished."

The 13 4- and 5-year-olds who are currently enrolled were screened for eligibility last spring.

Ten of those students are funded by the Colorado Preschool Program, and the other three are funded by BOCES, which provides assistance for special-needs children.

The remaining two slots can be filled by any children whose parents wish to pay privately.

A name change is only the beginning of differences between Little Friends and the new preschool program.

Superintendent Steve Jones said he hopes to start fresh with Ashley at the head of the classroom.

Little Friends ran into some financial trouble when infant and toddler services were added a few years ago.

The school district worked with Ashley to establish a budget that would prevent a financial crisis from clouding the purpose of the program, Jones said.

"There have been problems with funding in the past," Jones said. "We have moved beyond that to ensure that our focus is on giving this certain group a of kids a head start in learning."

Jones has been one of the biggest supporters of the effort to bring a preschool program back to South Routt.

"Getting kids on the right track while they are young is critical," Jones said. "I work with older kids every day and see the benefit of a sound education at an early age."

Cindy Rutledge, who works with BOCES, agreed the benefits of a preschool education will linger long after the school year ends.

"If we can introduce this learning and interaction to kids at an early age, we can ensure a more positive school experience for them as they enter kindergarten and beyond," she said.

A recent study that followed a group of children from preschool to the third grade revealed that every student scored at or above proficiency on their Colorado Student Assessment Program scores last year, Rutledge said.

Ashley's students will develop skills like lining up, interacting with their peers and listening, all of which can be built upon, she added.

It is that early foundation of learning Ashley hopes to accomplish this year.

"I know that every day will yield improvement," Ashley said. "Results, big or small, is something that I will get to see every day with these kids."

The biggest challenge, she said, is developing a tradition of learning that is respected and supported by the community.

"This is something great for all of South Routt," Ashley said. "It goes beyond Oak Creek. Our children are getting a great opportunity with this."

Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak's son was one of the first children enrolled in the preschool program that began 23 years ago.

"The parents in Oak Creek saw the need for our children to have some sort of exposure to a school environment before they went to kindergarten," she said.

Since Little Friends' closure, several private day care programs have opened up in Oak Creek, Phippsburg and Yampa in response to a need for child care, Stahoviak said.

But a fundamental problem still remains, she said.

Little Friends, like many child-care facilities in the area, experienced a high degree of turnover because it could not afford to fund its staff, she said.

"You see it everywhere," Stahoviak said. "We must pay these people competitive salaries so they feel as though they are in a real profession."

As the new preschool program takes root, Stahoviak said she is confident it will grow and be able to provide competitive wages to additional staff.

Stahoviak served on the board that brought Little Friends to Oak Creek 23 years ago.

Last year she again joined the same board to help get it on its feet.

"It feels as though we're going back 23 years and starting from scratch again with this preschool program," she said. "But we're going to make this work this time."

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