Toddlers On the Go

By: Jessica Beckman, UWSC Volunteer

It’s often said that preschool is a necessary step in children’s educations, preparing them for kindergarten. It improves social skills, teaches basic reading and writing so that they can spend time in kindergarten building on the skill, and it’s a time that encourages explorative learning and the foundation for greater abilities to problem solve. Some would argue it is a nice thing for students to have, but not really a necessity. After all, they’ll learn all of that in kindergarten. What can preschools do that parents can’t? Though it is true that the effects on IQ in the short term fade throughout elementary school, the long term effects later in life are difficult to dispute. Along with the long term academic benefits, studies have found universal preschool to be beneficial economically. Even though we have studies clearly showing that preschool is linked to multiple benefits later in life, it isn’t required by law. Because it isn’t legally required that student have a preschool education, different obstacles can come into play for parents trying to provide a preschool education to their kids. One of these obstacles is transportation to and from preschool. The United Way of Steele County, SMART Transit, the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), The Early Childhood Initiative, Social Services, Head-Start, Community Education, the Preschool Network, and the area preschools are interested in finding and providing a solution.

Most studies find preschool is a necessary factor in a child’s ability to succeed. A study performed by the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2013 found preschool enrollment was 10 to 20 percent lower in families experiencing poverty (Duncan and Magnuson 2). This same study found that the largest impacts were on children who were economically disadvantaged (5). The Children’s Action Alliance (CAA), a nonprofit group working in Arizona for children’s rights, published a study in 2005 on the overall short and long-term effect of preschool on students with early education. A highlighted study performed in Chicago found a 33 percent reduction in juvenile arrests, a 41 percent reduction in the need for special education programs, a 40 percent reduction in students repeating grades, and a 29 percent increase in the high school graduation rates among children who attended preschool. (Children’s Action Alliance 1). Drug use, teen pregnancy, graduation rates, and greater college readiness are all areas of improvement recognized by the study. Going back to the NIH study, “Children in the [Preschool] program entered college at 2.5 times the rate of children in the control group, and the intervention reduced rates of teen parenthood and marijuana use by nearly half” (Duncan and Magnus 2). Though this study didn’t point to any significant changes in crime rates statistically, it does reflect the same idea that preschool made them more likely to succeed. This specific preschool program also did something interesting not mentioned in the other studies. They provided transportation to all of their students (2).

Preschool isn’t only valuable academically, it has economic benefits as well. Multiple studies over the years have remarked on economic growth and positive returns on early childhood investment. Looking at the article published by the CAA, it goes on to say that it is projected that if the US were to have invested in early education for all 3 to 4-year-olds in poverty, the nation would see an additional 61 billion in economic revenue by 2015 (Children’s Action Alliance 2). Another piece of research used in this article was a famous study conducted over the course of 37 years on the “Perry” preschool program, a known high-quality program. The study found that by age 40 there was a 17 to 1 increase in economic prosperity and career success for the students involved in the study (2). That estimate was done in 2005. With inflation, currently at 1.88 percent and a predicted rate of 3 percent from now to 2027, that estimated return on investment would likely be larger today (Bureau of Labor Statistics). That revenue report also fails to mention the possible gains in revenue from parents no longer needing to schedule their work schedules around picking up and dropping off kids.

Preschool is important, but it may be especially necessary for Owatonna. The Owatonna High School (OHS) has a graduation rate of nearly 84 percent (Rainbow Research 11). Compared to national rates, that isn’t a bad number. However, when we look at the graduation rate of students on free and reduced lunch, it is only 67 percent (11). Academics isn’t the only place Owatonna falls short for low income individuals. Currently, the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) for a single person is $12,060 and for a family of 4 it is $24,600 (Federal Poverty Line). Though Steele County has an unemployment rate of only 5.7 percent, lower than the national average, nine percent of our community has an income lower than the rate set by the Federal Poverty Line (4-5). To better specify, 11 percent of Steele County has an income of less than 15,000 dollars a year (Rainbow Research 4). A lack of necessary income trickles into every part of life – including transportation, estimated to cost around 800 dollars a month (6). Along with the cost of owning a vehicle, work schedules make picking up and bringing your child to school difficult (due to limited availability and inflexible work schedules.) When these kids get to kindergarten, the public school bus comes into play, but until then parents don’t have a lot of options. That is, until the Preschool Transportation Program was put in place.

The need for pre-school transportation was originally brought to everyone’s attention when preschools began noticing a drop in registration and attendance. Head-Start experienced a cut in the funding that allowed them to provide transportation to students. Without transportation, their registration saw a dramatic decrease. Many other private preschools noted decreases in registration, thought for other reasons not directly linked to a stated need for transport. Businesses also talked about a difficulty with staff retention due to employees needing to change their schedule around getting kids to school and back. Over the course of two years, the United Way, with SMART Transportation, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), and the many others mentioned earlier, came together to work on formulating a solution to the lack of transportation options for families who wish to send their children to preschool. Through years of work and funding made available by the state, they acquired a bus with the capacity for 70 to 80 students. A struggle the coalition faced was deciding whether the route would be designed to help the greatest amount of people or those most in need. After much deliberation, it was decided that it would be best to design the routes to remove barriers for as many as possible. The group hopes with continued success and support that they can continue to expand the service for all who need it. 

Melinda Estey, the head of SMART transit, commented on the process of bringing this program to fruition and the struggles they faced. She described the routing as being like “a giant jigsaw puzzle.” Their goal was to transport as many students as possible with the shortest possible ride time for everyone. Their work was met with enthusiastic responses from the parents, filling capacity with an average of 70 students and a waiting list of 35 families interested in using the service. The bus costs one dollar per ride, but income qualified families automatically receive a scholarship through the United Way; who are currently funding 35 students, half the children riding the bus. Along with providing scholarships, the United Way participated in an event the coalition put on last summer providing packets to the parents with information on when and where children would be picked up or dropped off. At this event parents were also able meet the bus drivers and even ride the bus with their kids making sure both parent and child were comfortable with the arrangement. Tanya Paley of the United Way of Steele County, when asked about her views on the importance of preschool and this program said, “Research shows academically and socially, preschool sets kids up for life. This [program] makes sure transportation isn’t the barrier that prevents kids from attending.” Thanks to the program’s initial success and more funding being available this coming year a new bus is going to be introduced increasing capacity to 160. Along with increased capacity, the hope is this will allow for children to ride round trip further alleviating the burden faced by parents struggling to find a way to get their kids to school. Though exact numbers on preschool registration are unavailable, the preschools involved have reported they believe the service has increased enrollment.

At the end of this first year, parents were surveyed on their experience. Except for a few small hiccups, all responses were overwhelmingly positive. Bus drivers knew the kids by name and in many cases served as an extension of preschool becoming more like instructors than bus drivers. The bus also had books to keep the kids occupied along with providing a space for kids to get to know one another. In this way the bus was more than a way to get kids back and forth. It allowed kids to meet others in their peer group that they wouldn’t have met otherwise. Some parents even remarked on their kids seeing the bus while out and about and proudly announcing that it was their bus. One parent using the service, Amy Stoltz, sat down for an interview and talked about her experience using the service. Mrs. Stoltz works the nightshift and her husband has a conflicting work schedule, so getting their daughter to preschool was difficult; however, they were planning to send her anyway as they viewed preschool as too important to kids’ educations to not pursue. Her family was impressed with the reliability of the service, remarking on the policy that a student would never be released without an adult present to take them. This, and the attentiveness of the drivers and aids present made her feel assured her daughter would be safe on the bus. Most importantly, her daughter loved it. Even if they were having a bad morning, she always wanted to ride the bus. Mrs. Stoltz even remarked on her daughter’s new found independence after taking the bus this year.

The key to this program’s success so far, and its continued success as it expands in years to come, is the collaboration of people passionate about making a change. Getting their ideas off the ground took years of work and dedication from people all over the community. This idea of collaboration isn’t just important to the success of this program, but an example of collaborative problem solving in Steele County. Owatonna and Steele County have problems that need solutions, beyond a need for public transport. It’s through collaborations, like this, done through the passion of people who want to see change, that things get done. The mission of the United Way of Steele County is to help field this change; whether it be though the collaboration of others working toward a goal, or helping to provide funds to programs working to address these issues. You can apply for preschool service on the United Way’s Website. If you’re interested in using the bus, or want to learn more about this and other programs provided go to www.unitedwaysteelecounty.org and follow on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates.

Sources

1.      ANDERSONranderson@owatonna.com, RYAN. "Steele County SMART Transit Receiving Money to Increase Preschool Transportation Services."Southernminn.com. Owatonna Peoples Press, 11 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 July 2017. http://www.southernminn.com/owatonna_peoples_press/news/article_0ebcd27d-fc41-51aa-bce7-645baea437f7.html
2.      "Bureau of Labor Statistics." Inflation Calculator. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2017. http://www.in2013dollars.com/
3.      Duncan, Greg J., and Katherine Magnuson. “Investing in Preschool Programs.” The journal of economic perspectives : a journal of the American Economic Association 27.2 (2013): 109–132. PMC. Web. 17 July 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318654/
4.      "Early Childhood Education." National Dropout Prevention Center. National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, n.d. Web. 17 July 2017.
http://dropoutprevention.org/effective-strategies/early-childhood-education/
5.        "Federal Poverty Level (FPL)." HealthCare.gov. US Center for Medicare and Medicaid, n.d. https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/federal-poverty-level-FPL/
6.      HYATTkhyatt@owatonna.com, KIM. "New Collaboration Makes Preschool Transportation Priority." Southernminn.com. Owatonna Peoples Press, 08 Dec. 2015. Web. 17 July 2017.  http://www.southernminn.com/owatonna_peoples_press/news/article_34320a3a-6645-540f-b96b-e677996bc9bd.html
7.      _preschool_rocks_.pdf. Phoenix, AZ: Children’s Action Alliance, June 2005. PDF. http://www.azchildren.org/MyFiles/PDF/_preschool_rocks_.pdf
8.      Rainbow Research, comp. Identifying Disparities in Income, Health and Education. Rep. Owatonna: United Way of Steele County, 2014. Print.