In a typical year, St. Cloud schools have more than 220 children on a waiting list for preschool. Even last year, during the tumult of students pivoting between distance and in-person learning, there were more than 100 kids on the waiting list.
"We know that list could be even longer," said Lori Posch, executive director of learning and teaching for the St. Cloud school district. "Our waiting list is due to space, and it's due to transportation. We have preschool programs in all of our elementary schools … but we do not have space to expand them."
The St. Cloud Rotary Club — a group of leaders with a track record of creating successful programs to address youth homelessness, crime in a south side neighborhood or the lack of clean water in the Dominican Republic — decided to tackle the preschool shortage as the club's latest signature project.
This year, members are collaborating with the school district and local Boys & Girls Clubs on a project called Preschool 4 Success, which gives 60 4-year-olds the chance to go to preschool for free.
"They don't have the resources to address this," said Gary Marsden, Rotary Club member and the retired co-founder of Marco Inc. "The state of Minnesota indicates there are roughly 35,000 kids who aren't able to go to preschool.
"And the evidence is pretty overwhelming that kids who have had preschool do better in kindergarten. And if they do better in kindergarten, they obviously do better in their school career [and] graduations rates go up. That's really what we're trying to do — getting them launched."
Housing pre-K classrooms at Boys & Girls Clubs is a natural fit, said Mary Swingle, president and chief executive at Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota.
"A lot of our building is open during the daytime because a majority of our kiddos come in after school," Swingle said. "So we already have this wonderful partnership with the school district. [We thought] let's just expand our partnership and allow them to use our facility during the daytime to reach additional kids."
Boys & Girls Clubs have three St. Cloud sites; Preschool 4 Success will have classrooms at the Southside and Roosevelt clubs. Swingle said the clubs already provide after-school academic help, as well as programs to support social, emotional and physical health. The clubs serve more than 6,500 youth each year through all the programming. And on any given evening, there are about 200 kids at the Southside club and 125 at the Roosevelt club.
"It's all about preparing well-rounded, healthy individuals — and academically prepared," Swingle said.
Preschool 4 Success will use the same curriculum as the school district.
"They'll be getting all the same basic standards — all those kindergarten-readiness skills — but what we're able to do with Rotary's partnership is really enhance our play-based learning opportunities," Posch said. "They are going to fund some additional community field trips and are working with us to make sure the spaces we have are even more multiculturally inviting."
Rotary members have also pledged to read to or tutor students, and student teachers from St. Cloud State will have the opportunity to work beside the preschool teachers to get field experience.
Most important, the program will address opportunity and access barriers for young learners, Posch said.
"There's a higher rate of high school completion and college enrollment for students who attended preschool," Posch said. "As an added benefit, we will have a very literate community. We will have workforce-ready graduates. I just think there's so many benefits — not just to those students who will get that opportunity, but to our community in the long run."
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299