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Jackson R-2 School Board looks at Early Childhood program

Early Childhood Education staff members and families spoke to the Jackson R-2 School Board during the board’s regular meeting on Feb. 14. Photo by Jay Forness

The Jackson R-2 School Board approved an evaluation of the district’s early childhood program, which includes a preschool program for special education students, “at risk” Title I students and students in the tuition-paying “Little Indians” program.

The preschool program was started in 1998 with two classes. Today, there are 13 early education classrooms, with 14 teachers and 19 paraprofessionals. The early childhood program also includes the parents as teachers program, where educators visit families not in the preschool program.

There is currently a waiting list of over 700 children to get into the early childhood preschool program, with the preschool program currently serving between 300 and 350 students.

“We are pretty much our own school,” Early Childhood Special Education Teacher Sarah Kuntze said. “When I started, it was a $25 activity fee you pay for the whole year, and our waiting list wasn’t this long.”

Exploring the possibility of expanding early childhood opportunities was one of the objectives of the district’s current strategic plan, which was approved by the board last June.

The preschool program was originally held at South Elementary School, where they had five classrooms by 2008. In 2010, the district rented an additional five classrooms for early childhood education at New McKendree United Methodist Church as well as started the extended day program for students who needed to stay longer than the half-day preschool class.

The extended day program started with six students in 2010. Kuntze said there are currently 110 early education students in six extended day classes, and there is a need from parents to expand the extended day program further.

The program moved to East Elementary School in 2015, when they had 10 classrooms and two extended day rooms. The program has continued to expand, with a new classroom being added to East last month by renovating a former closet into a classroom.

In addition to a new classroom and teacher this year, the program added Jill Hadler as a full-time counselor and Amy Diamond as a part time behavior specialist. Kuntze said their additions have been a large help in addressing students social and emotional needs.

“Ms. Jill comes into our classrooms, has a planned lesson and works with our kids on social-emotional abilities,” Kuntze said. “We also have her when our kiddos are having one of those days. She can come get them and get down on their level to help them work through whatever is going on.”

Kuntze said the teachers work on cognitive skills, fine and gross motor sills, literacy, science and exploration. “We hear a lot that students just play in preschool,” Kuntze said. “We do have a lot of fun, but we are learning while we are playing.”

The preschool program is split up relatively evenly between special education students, Title I students and Little Indian students. Most special education and all Title I students are integrated into classrooms with students in the Little Indian program.

Kuntze said the Little Indian students, whose families pay tuition unlike special education and Title I students, act as peer models in the classroom and are what makes Jackson’s early childhood program unique.

“It not only teaches the kiddos who are there who have special needs, it’s amazing to see what it does to our typically developing kids,” Kuntze said. “You talk about inclusion and fostering empathy — if you walk into our classroom, the kids just look at each other as friends.”

Early childhood staff members, as well as families who have had students attend the preschool, spoke to the board about the program.

In other action:

• The board approved a resolution authorizing the district to participate in the Missouri Capital Asset Advantage Treasury (MO-CATT) program. Superintendent Scott Smith said the resolution does not mean the district has to participate in the program, but allows them to further investigate if the program will benefit the district.

“MOCAAT is a financial institution made up of mostly former superintendents who work with schools on investments — how can you invest your money to get the best return,” Smith said.

Smith said MOCAAT can do a cash-flow analysis of the district, finding out how much money the district needs each month so the district can invest any funds it does not need available at any given time. In addition, MOCAAT can help invest bond funds before it needs to be spent by the district.

The district currently invests with First State Community Bank. Smith said First State has given the district an “exceptionally good rate” and some of MOCAAT’s investment options may not be very different, but there are some aspects of MOCAAT’s program that regular banks can’t offer.

“We are very pleased with First State Community Bank, and they’ve done a good job of meeting our needs,” Smith said. “We’ve seen a good return on our money that’s in the bank — however, we feel like the cash-flow analysis and the opportunity to invest money through a bonding institution could be very beneficial to the district.”

• The school board made edits to board policies dealing with donations to the district and memorials on district property. The policies now state specific types of memorials that members of the public can give to the district in memory of a deceased individual.

Memorials can come in the form of a monetary gift for a particular school activity or department, the creation of a memorial scholarship, an engraved paver brick as part of the high school’s “Trail of Honor” or a purchase of library books or other school equipment.

The district will maintain a wish list of items that can be used for memorials. In the case of library books and similar supplies, a message can be include with the memorialized individual’s name, words “donated in memory of” or “in memory of” and the person’s dates of birth and death.

Plantings such as memorial trees or other plants are no longer mentioned in the policies. “This is something that we’ve been looking carefully at this year because we’ve lost two staff members sadly this year,” Associate Superintendent Jessica Maxwell said, adding that she worked with guidance counselors on these updates.

Input from counselors advised against larger physical memorials such as plants or benches, as they can be constant remembers of the loss to students and staff members. All gifts have to be approved by the superintendent and the building principal before being accepted by the district.

• The board voted to raise the tuition rate to $10,000 for the next school year, after being at the current rate of $9,117 for the past two school years. The rate is primarily used for students who come to Jackson High School from the Nell Holcomb School District.

Smith said the district currently spends around $10,600 for each student, but that would be a large jump for K-8 districts to pay for their students to come to Jackson High School. He added that the $10,000 tuition rate is similar to surrounding districts like Cape Central and the district can.

“$10,000 covers what we need it to cover,” Smith said. “We aren’t dependent on this money. It does help and we don’t want to subsidize other students coming to us, so that where we landed.”

• The board voted to extend the grocery contract with Gold Star Foods through the 2023-2024 school year. The company won the district’s grocery bid last year, which included options for the district to renew the yearly contract up to two times.

“They deliver to individual schools and do a good job,” Assistant Superintendent Keenan Kinder said, adding that Gold Star worked with the district to still get food delivered a few weeks ago when there was snow and ice.

Kinder added that the company has recently acquired another food distributor Graves Foods, which should help the district receive more of its required products from Gold Star.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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