An early childhood program that began with the popular Backpack Program has grown into preschool programs that prepare 3- and 4-year-olds for a lifetime of learning. The Backpack Early Learning Academy (BELA) was first established at Garnet Mesa Elementary School in about 2003 and a couple of years later expanded to Lincoln Elementary School. BELA branched out from there, serving preschoolers in Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia. Next fall, BELA will expand on an existing partnership with Little Sprouts Preschool and open a program at Cedaredge Elementary School.
It is not the school district's intention to take over the community's Little Sprouts Preschool, Angela Fedler explained, but to ensure every 3- and 4-year-old has an opportunity to attend preschool. Fedler is the director of early childhood programs for Delta County Joint School District #50.
Little Sprouts currently has a waiting list, and due to staffing/facility limitations can not serve all the youngsters in Cedaredge. Based on the size of this year's kindergarten class, there's the potential to serve 30 additional preschool-age students, Fedler said.
Currently, the school district provides Colorado Preschool Program (CPP) scholarships for qualifying students at Little Sprouts Preschool. Fedler said she expects that partnership to continue.
Simultaneously, the school district will utilize a room at Cedaredge Elementary School that was designed with preschoolers in mind when the new addition was built. A lead teacher and a co-teacher will be hired for the morning and afternoon sessions of preschool.
Lora Ely, director of Little Sprouts Preschool, said the private, nonprofit preschool will definitely be around next fall and "hopefully for many years to come."
BELA will definitely have an effect, she said, and the board is currently weighing how best to serve the community with quality programming.
Ely said Little Sprouts has an outstanding staff that's always striving to meet the needs of the children and their families. For a small additional
fee, Little Sprouts offers snacks that not only meet nutritional goals but also teach the preschoolers about making healthy choices.
"We try to provide a very well-rounded education," Ely said, "that includes not just the basics but also teaches responsibility and character, and gets children engaged in learning."
Because preschool space is limited, the backpacks that are the foundation of the school district's early childhood education effort are still highly regarded, Fedler said.
"The Backpack Program is really one of the most important pieces we do because it encourages parents to work with their kiddos," Fedler said. Research has shown parent involvement is key to student success, from preschool through to graduation rates, she said.
The Backpack Program also meets the needs of families who, because of transportation or day care needs, don't find preschool to be a good fit.
"It's always our mission to make sure we're serving the maximum number of preschoolers," Fedler said.