Enrollment slots still available for preschool program at Fitch Mountain Elementary

There is new management for the district managed preschool in Healdsburg, and everybody is excited about it. North Bay Children’s Center was designated to take over the operations of the preschool program located on the Fitch Mountain campus and they are looking to bring their award-winning curriculum to the district.

“They have expertise in early childhood education and a network that we don’t,” said Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel. “I believe they could provide a better service, but maximize the contract, because they understand the nuances of state grants for preschools. We thought we could really expand service for preschool in our area and create a better experience for the kids.”

NBCC is a 30-year-old entity based in Marin and Sonoma Counties that currently serves 600 children daily at 13 locations, according to NBCC Executive Director and Founder Susan Gilmore.  While they initially started as a subsided childcare program for infants and toddlers, they have over time become leaders in the field of school readiness programs taking place on school sites and within districts. They have similar programs in the Petaluma school district, Santa Rosa City Schools and the Sonoma school district.

“We have classrooms like this program here that are part of a school campus and we’re getting these kids engaged and involved in education at three instead of five. We have a high quality program that focuses on language acquisition, school readiness, what’s needed for these kids before they start kindergarten,” Gilmore said.

In addition to having the kids more ready to begin kindergarten and join a school community, the families are also educated and pulled in.

“We are having great results at all of these school sites with these families that are already part of the school system; as far as these families are concerned we are the same family,” Gilmore said. “Its awesome because not only are the kids prepared, the parents are, through their experience and their engagement with the preschool. They really understand, before they ever start kindergarten, their role in their child’s education. So, we have not only kids that are ready, we are sending room parents to Kindergarten as well.”

The previous incarnation of the district preschool was available only to children in needs of subsidized care, but the NBCC model is “blended” meaning open to children from all backgrounds and financial means. The district receives a state grant based on enrollment, which it then passes to NBCC for children needing subsidies, and there are also slots for families to pay. The monthly cost to a paying family, $557 for four or five days a week, $387 for three days a week, is the same as the amount the state provides for needy children.

“That’s one of the things that attracted us to NBCC was the expertise they have in building what’s called a blended program,” Vanden Heuvel said. 

“Often times schools will get these subsidies and design programs just for these subsidized children and it doesn’t really reflect the whole school community,” Gilmore said. “What’s best for kids is to be in a blended program, to be in an environment with the kids they will be going to school with.”

At present there are two, half-day programs running, one in the morning (8 to 11 a.m.) and one in the afternoon (noon to 3 p.m.). There are sixty slots available, and about half of those are full at present. Vanden Heuvel believes part of the reason for the openings has to do with a rumor that went through the community that the preschool had closed, but he and Gilmore admit there are two other issues contributing to the slow enrollment.

The first is that it’s become clear that the community needs a full day program, that the half-day is not useful to the average working parent. The district and NBCC are working on getting a full-day program approved, but the wheels of bureaucracy can move slowly.

“We have to be able to make a case to the state that this is what this community needs and we are in the process of demonstrating that need,” Gilmore said.

Second, and still related to bureaucracy, the preschool was not able to open at the beginning of the regular school year, only opening its doors on Sept. 13. This was due to having to switch the license from the district to NBCC.

“It was hurry up and wait,” said Gilmore. “We missed that (enrollment) window.”

Families interested in learning about the preschool or enrolling are encouraged to call 707-473-4382. They will be able to make an appointment to view the school and also be guided through determining subsidy qualification if necessary.

Coming soon, the Garden of Eatin’

The signature program of the North Bay Children’s Center is the Garden of Eatin, a garden-based food and nutrition education program that has been written up in The American Journal for Public Health and lauded by communities. They plan on bringing this program to Healdsburg, and can’t imagine a better spot.

“We have this amazing space here in Healdsburg,” said Executive Director Susan Gilmore. “You can’t not grow anything here. So we are very excited about working with the community here to bring the Garden of Eatin’ program to this site. This is a beautiful space to work with. What we’re going to do is design “playscapes.” These are natural environments for children to play in, structures like willow huts and logs and woven in and out of the play area is going to be the garden.”

Research and past experience has shown that children can become opinion leaders in their own homes and often lead their families to making healthier choices.

“The kids are in the grocery cart and they are with their parents shopping and they are throwing tantrums in the produce aisle because they want the berries and the corn and the cherry tomatoes they’re used to eating in the garden,” Gilmore said. “Kids were changing what was going in the grocery cart and parents were calling and asking us for recipes for cauliflower.”

Gilmore estimates the garden and playscape installation in Healdsburg will run about $130,000 with about $90,000 of that for design and construction and the remaining amount for a nutrition educator. She is hoping the community will be able to step up with donations and materials to help offset some of those costs.

“The more we can get community volunteers and donations of materials, the quicker we can get this ball rolling,” she said.

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