A wonderful evolution has taken place since the Backpack Program was implemented 20 years ago, but the basic precept remains unchanged: Supporting parents as their child's first and most important teacher.
The Backpack Program is a unique home-based preschool program that provides parents with free, themed boxes containing a wealth of teaching opportunities. Each box contains 7-10 books which establish the theme for the box. Activities, games, puzzles and crafts complement the theme, each offering an opportunity to develop a child's language, writing, math, fine motor, gross motor and memory skills. For the kids, though, it's just plain fun.
"It's like Christmas once a month," says Crawford parent Stephanie Neff. "I won't let my kids open the boxes until we get home, because we don't want to lose any pieces, but then it's really fun to watch them take everything out. They have a ball playing with everything in the box, but as parents we know we're working collaboratively together toward a bigger goal."
All children living in Delta County who are at least 3 years old, but not yet enrolled in kindergarten, are eligible for the free program.
Neff has rotated through many of the 58 themed boxes with her two older children. Still she's as excited as her 3-year-old to read the books, play the games, and do the activities contained in each box. "We've loved the Backpack Program," she says. "The Backpack crew works so hard at making each box fun and creative for the kids, and they're always available with support if your child is struggling. They also sponsor a lot of activities where the families can get together. This is such a neat idea."
"This program is near and dear to my heart," says program facilitator Lisa Mock. She started out as a Backpack parent in 2003, first with her son and then her daughter. In 2007 she joined the Backpack support group, cleaning boxes, replenishing materials and making exchanges. When program facilitator Judy Fairchild retired in 2009, Mock stepped into her position. Co-founder Terry Hotz retired at the same time and Angela Fedler took over her position as Delta County preschool director.
"To this day I still remember my kids' favorite boxes," Mock says. "One of my son's first boxes was a digger box which contained a hedgehog puppet that he loved. It was so hard to give that box up! We asked the Backpack ladies where they had gotten the hedgehog, and my mother and I went to Grand Junction to buy another one. To this day, the puppet sits on a shelf in my son's room. 'Hedgie' will always be part of our family."
Because of memorable experiences such as that one, and the value she got out of the program as a parent, Mock is committed to sharing the benefits of the Backpack program with all the parents who join the program every year.
"It's an investment for me, not just from an educator's point of view but from a parent's point of view," she says.
The Backpack program was proposed by a team of early child professionals in 1992 as a way to help support families in the enrichment of their child's preschool experiences. Initial funding came from Title I and Delta County Joint School District #50.
In the first year, 17 families signed up for the preschool Backpack Program. A kindergarten Backpack Program served children attending half-day kindergarten. The materials were initially placed in backpacks, but were soon transferred to Rubbermaid containers. Although the plastic tubs proved to be more serviceable and longer lasting, the backpack name stuck.
The Backpack Program was initially housed in the "kindercottage" in Cedaredge. Summer enrichment kindercamps were offered to children involved in the program. When kindergarten went to a full day throughout the school district, backpacks were offered only to the kindergarten students who needed additional support.
As the program continued to grow, operations were moved to the Special Services building in Delta and finally to the current location in the Delta Center for Performing Arts and Education.
When enrollment topped 500, several programs were added to meet children's needs. Backback Plus-A was a visitation program that provided remedial support to children with delayed developmental skills. A playgroup was offered to families of children with delayed developmental skills at Garnet Mesa Elementary.
Then came the establishment of licensed preschools, a "proud child" of the Backpack Program. Backpack Early Learning Academy (BELA) preschools were started at Garnet Mesa and Lincoln, then expanded to Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia. There is no BELA preschool in Cedaredge, but through a collaborative arrangement with Little Sprouts Preschool, backpacks are delivered upon request to any Cedaredge area family. There are also some state-funded preschool spots at Little Sprouts.
In 2007, Title I funds were suspended. Today the program relies on funding from the Delta County Department of Health and Human Services, Colorado Preschool Program, Family Literacy (Even Start), Cocker Kids Foundation, Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, Daniels Fund, El Pomar and Anschutz Family Foundation.
"This is an entirely grant-funded program with in-kind services from Delta County Joint School District," Mock explains. "Money wise, we have to seek grants for every operational expenditure we have."
The Backpack factory in Delta keeps Mock and four other employees hopping. They track 650 boxes, including boxes for developmentally delayed children, boxes for gifted and talented preschoolers, and boxes for bilingual learners. These boxes contain Spanish and English versions of each book, so preschoolers can read in their native language and in their new language. The boxes are themed, Mock says, because research shows that when a common thread ties learning material together, a child's retention of that material increases.
Pickup sites are offered in every community. Many times the boxes are left at the elementary school on the honor system. Parents leave the box they had the previous month, pick up a new box, and are on their way. For new families, though, a "box talk" is a must, so they get the most out of the experience.
"I have a box in front of me, and I explain how important it is for parents to get excited about what they do with that box," Mock explains.
"There are a lot of toys and they're in a box, so it's easy to call it a toy box, but it's not. It's a parent tool box. I want them to use it as a tool, to pull out activities and sit down on the floor with their child and have great one-on-one activity with them because those are the connections that will make the difference in their child's educational process.
"It's nothing magical. We don't have a magic book, we don't have a magic toy that makes their child do better in school down the road. It's because they paid attention and they encouraged their child."
Mock points out that kids have a library of up to 10,000 words by the time they start kindergarten. Through the Backpacks, parents can expand their child's vocabulary by exploring a wide variety of themes.
"The boxes exposed my kids to different things than they might have had at home," says Misty McCormick, the mother of a fifth grader, second grader and now a 4-year-old who have all been participants.
Inspired by the Madeline series of books, they tried speaking French. Games and puzzles taught problem solving. Her son sought out the math challenges, while her daughters have loved taking care of the animals in the veterinary box. When they discovered books they greatly enjoyed, they purchased copies for their home library.
The boxes with dolls or princesses never appealed to her daughters, but they always had other choices, and the Backpack ladies quickly came to understand their preferences and to steer them toward boxes they would enjoy, McCormick says.
In 20 years, thousands of kids in Delta County have been involved in the Backpack Program. Each child is screened in five developmental areas when they enroll in the program, and then again when they leave the program for kindergarten. That assessment illustrates how much preschoolers have grown and the skills they've gained in just two years. And hopefully, parents and children alike have learned that learning can — and will continue to — be fun as their education continues to kindergarten and beyond.
A fun-filled day has been planned Saturday, Oct. 27, to celebrate 20 years of the Backpack Program. The day begins with a 5k family run/walk beginning and ending at The Delta Center, 822 Grand Avenue. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m., and the race starts at 8 a.m. There will be a one-mile loop for families who prefer a shorter option. Door prizes will be awarded at the conclusion of the race.
An open house is planned from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., with a special presentation at 11 a.m. to recognize founders and funders who have made the Backpack Program possible.
Community service providers have been invited to set up booths on the front lawn of The Delta Center to provide information and support to families. Giveaways and family activities will be ongoing. Lunch will be served by the Delta Lions Club and Hellman Motors will be sponsoring Drive One 4 UR School, a fundraiser for the Backpack Program. For each family that test drives a Ford from Hellman Motors, $20 will be donated to the Backpack Program.
You can register for the run at deltaschools.com, or call 874-9517 for more information about any of the events planned for the Backpack's 20th anniversary celebration.blog comments powered by Disqus