Cub Clubs, new day care seen as ways to meet kids’ needs
By Marcy Stamper
As working families juggle schedules and seek enriching experiences for young children, the Methow Valley School District has been brainstorming about ways the district might help offer more child care options and maybe even preschool.
The school district has had some success in bridging the gap this year, accommodating about 100 elementary-age kids in after-school clubs with activities like robotics, art, cooking and fly fishing.
In addition to the clubs, next year the district is offering a sliding-scale, after-school day care program for kids from kindergarten through sixth grade.
While the more varied Cub Clubs offered this past year (along with late-afternoon bus transportation) have certainly served more kids — about eight times as many as last year — the program has not been without hiccups.
Although several of the after-school clubs are led by teachers or paid staff, others are run by community volunteers, and periodic last-minute cancellations left parents scrambling to find a place to send their child after school.
The success of the clubs created its own problems. So many people signed up for the garden club this spring that, even after the school increased the number of spots, half a dozen children were wait-listed. The spring fly-fishing club also proved very popular, but with only 11 fishing poles, almost as many kids were on the waiting list, said Katharine Bill, the district’s early childhood education and child care coordinator. Cooking also had a waiting list, but robotics still had openings.
Bill tried to place as many children as possible, and said those who weren’t able to register this year will have first priority next term, she said.
The school district pitched the Cub Clubs as an opportunity for kids to learn something or get exercise, but the district also explicitly acknowledged that the clubs could fill a hole for families who needed child care. Bill said about one-third of participants signed up primarily because the kids needed something to do after school.
Some parents who’d been counting on a club to bridge a child care gap, stimulate a child’s interest, or both, were frustrated when enrollment proved difficult. “If you’re going to offer the classes after school, everyone should be able to attend,” said one parent whose child had been wait-listed for two clubs.
Some kids were disappointed when the chess club, which started strong in the fall, was canceled in the spring when the volunteer leader was no longer available.
Despite these frustrations, parents said they understand that making these new activities run smoothly requires a lot of coordination.
“It’s new — the volunteers don’t realize how hard it is to show up every week. It’s unfortunate for kids that the school hasn’t structured in more scaffolding when volunteers can’t show up,” said one parent.
Another parent acknowledged that some families’ approach may have contributed to the problems. “When it started in the fall, lots of parents thought of it as free day care, and kids got signed up even if they weren’t really interested in the activity,” she said.
“It’s always challenging with extra-curricular activities — we’re dependent on the good will and availability of volunteers,” said Tom Venable, the school district superintendent.
“It’s a bit of an imperfect process,” said Bill, who sends information and registration forms home with kids and in the school’s weekly email to families, but knows it doesn’t always get to parents right away.
Although some club leaders were overwhelmed by preparing activities for each session, several are interested in teaching and have been working with school staff on lesson planning and classroom management, said Bill.
Bill is cobbling together funding from various sources to run the clubs and buy supplies. Some leaders are volunteers, but others are paid by local nonprofits.
Next year Bill plans a more formal orientation and a handbook for volunteers. She also will try to connect club activities with units used in International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, such as science and nature.
“We will keep working with the model,” said Bill. “We need some way to sustain this over the long term.”
After-school child care
Starting in the fall, child care will be available five days a week from 3:15 to 5 p.m. on a sliding scale ?$40 per month for families who qualify for free-meal services, $60 per month for those who qualify for reduced-price meals, and $100 per month for families able to pay the full amount. A survey indicated people would be willing to pay $5 to $10 per day, said Venable.
The after-school program won’t merely be babysitting — the supervisors will offer strategy games, art projects, outdoor play and help with homework.
It also won’t be available on a drop-in basis — people will have to sign a child up for a month at a time.
For children in kindergarten through third grade, there will be one supervisor for every 15 children, and one for every 20 older children. Transportation will be provided afterwards to the Winthrop Barn and the Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp.
Enrollment information is available at the elementary school and online at methow.org.
The district hopes to add summer enrichment programs in 2017, said Venable.
Beyond after-school enrichment and child care, the district has been looking at ways to provide preschool for children ages 3 to 5. Surveys conducted by the district and its early-education partners have shown that about one-quarter of Methow Valley kids in this age group are not served, either because of limited spots in existing programs or financial barriers.
One idea the district is exploring is whether it can expand Head Start beyond the current 18 spots. Head Start is a federally funded program for 3- and 4-year-olds in families who meet strict income-eligibility requirements. It currently has only a morning session here, so the district is exploring whether it can be lengthened to a full day.
The district has been talking with the director of the county’s Head Start programs, who is excited. “She thinks it’s innovative and possible,” said Bill. “We haven’t encountered any administrative roadblocks yet.”
Building on Head Start is attractive because it meets at the elementary school and already has trained teachers and paraeducators, said Venable. In fact, the district has been including the four Head Start teachers in its professional development and IB workshops so that students are better prepared when they enter kindergarten.
Because there are a significant number of families who don’t qualify for Head Start but also can’t afford another early-learning program in the valley, the district is investigating whether eligibility requirements can be adjusted, said Venable.
“We’re very much in the exploratory phase with regard to expansion of the Head Start program, given the many unknowns and details to make sense of, coupled with the need for a funding source,” said Venable.
Information compiled by Bill estimates there are about 250 children under age 5 in the Methow. Existing preschools — for kids 18 months and older — have waiting lists of several families, but for the 50 infants there are no licensed child care options at all, she said.
Solving the problem of child care and early education for infants and toddlers is even more challenging. The school district is not equipped to provide services for those kids, said Venable.
Even with these shortcomings, only six kindergartners this year had absolutely no prior school experience, according to Bill. The district’s research does not show if these families couldn’t access preschool or simply elected not to send their children to preschool.