The Mancos preschool is at capacity, and a new one is coming in to meet the demand.
Preschools fill a dual need, providing working parents with child care and serving as an introductory schooling experience for young children. Although preschool is not mandatory, nationwide research has identified it for its value in terms of both socialization and improving educational readiness.
“It’s where education starts,” said elementary Principal Cathy Epps.
And now that the Mancos Early Learning Center is at maximum capacity, some local parents hope to fill the need for those on the waiting list by founding the Dragonfly Preschool, which is set to open in the fall.
The Mancos preschool opened in 2013. Before that, a Head Start program operated out of the Mount Lookout Grange, but it was forced to close because of unsafe building conditions, Epps said.
The Mancos School District RE-6 then decided to meet the need for early childhood education. The district bought a property just east of the existing elementary school along Walnut Street, leveled the house sitting on it and built the preschool.
At first, the preschool had its own director. But after she retired, administrators decided the preschool should become part of the elementary school, said Epps, now in her fifth year as principal.
“It just makes so much sense to have it all combined, and be principal of the preschool and the elementary school,” Epps said, adding that combining the two sites has helped smooth students’ transition into kindergarten.
Her title has now expanded to “PK-5 principal.”
The school has three types of funding: Head Start, Colorado Preschool Program and tuition. Head Start is federally funded and serves children from low-income backgrounds, while the Colorado Preschool Program is state-funded and supports children who are identified as having certain individual or family risk factors, ranging from homelessness to poor social skills, among several others. Students who don’t fall into either category pay tuition.
“Because we’re mixed funded, we get kids from all walks of life,” said Kate Kearns, assistant director at the Early Learning Center. “And honestly, for me, what I witness every day, I get little people who don’t have a lot of language, and I get little people that speak all day long. When they’re playing together, the one with all the language is talking a mile a minute at the one that doesn’t have it, and it’s drawing that one out.
“There’s a huge connection between language and the number of words a child has and how well they do by the third grade,” she added. “And then if they go on to college or not – I mean it’s enormous.”
“We really meet the needs of Mancos,” Epps added, speaking to the varied funding sources.
Learning through playStatewide perceptions toward early childhood learning and education have shifted over the past few decades, Kearns said. For a while, Colorado was moving toward a more “academic” focus, she said, but has since returned to being “play-based,” the model of the Mancos Early Learning Center.
“Children naturally learn through play,” Kearns said. “Play is kind of a loaded word, sometimes. People get worried that they’re not learning if they’re playing. Play is really their work, and they don’t distinguish between the two.”
Every part of the day is structured, she said, even the hours that seem devoted to play or “choice time.” The curved or straight wooden sticks that the children are using for play, for example, are in fact tools used for teaching them letters – a skill requested by kindergarten teachers.
“That’s been such a plus with having preschool here instead of just a separate Head Start because we really collaborate,” Epps said. “Adopting that curriculum, we talked about it, preschool through fifth grade.”
Serving a needRight now, though, the Mancos preschool is hovering around its 48-student capacity, determined by classroom space, student needs and a strict 1-8 teacher-student ratio. Although their numbers fluctuate, they currently have five students on their waiting list.
There are other preschools in Dolores, Cortez and Durango, but no other ones in Mancos, which is why some local parents are forming the Mancos Valley Dragonfly Preschool, set to open its doors in the fall.
“We are just being there for our children as well as serving a need in the Mancos Valley, that there isn’t enough child care and preschools,” said Emily Palmer, board president of the new school.
The school site will be located a few miles south of downtown Mancos, with construction set to happen through spring and summer. Currently, the school is under fiscal sponsorship of Mancos Valley Resources but operates as a nonprofit – the leadership team is working on achieving 501(c)3 nonprofit status, according to its website.
Experiential learningFor curriculum, they plan on following the Waldorf model, a style founded in the early 20th century that focuses on “experiential” learning. Palmer pointed to the Waldorf emphasis on fostering imagination as a reason they chose it.
“Waldorf is also very nature-based, which we feel is important for children in this technological era,” Palmer said. “To create the importance, and to foster that love of learning with nature.”
She hastens to add that they are not looking to replace the existing Mancos preschool.
“There’s nothing wrong with the existing preschool,” Palmer said. “The teachers that I’ve met there, and what I know about it – it’s so beautifully done and so beautifully run, and great staff. It’s really just about offering another option because everything else is at capacity.”