VERNON – “Give me paws!” said Vernon Elementary School Superintendent and Principal Dr. Monica Barajas to a crowd of about 100 people at the Vernon Elementary School gymnasium. If you’re a student at Vernon Elementary, a “Huskie,” that means give a round of applause.
Principal Barajas, however, didn’t have to work too hard to get the crowd excited during last Wednesday’s open house and ribbon cutting to celebrate the opening of the school’s newly formed preschool.
“Early childhood education will positively impact our children and it’s an investment in the future of our society,” Barajas told the audience sitting in the bleachers. “I want to thank the Vernon Elementary School District staff because you have been amazing throughout this journey and all worked overtime to get this done.”
The small K-8 school serves Vernon and the surrounding rural areas east of Show Low. In January, the Vernon Elementary School District (VESD) board unanimously approved the formation of a preschool, to be located at the existing school campus.
The planning and building of the pre-school room and playground, led by the Vernon staff, school board and community partners have moved at a fast pace since then and they are already enrolling students for this fall’s 2019-2020 school year.
The original advocate for the formation of a preschool was Vernon Elementary kindergarten teacher Kristen Orton. When the school board was in the discussion stages, Orton not only immersed herself in researching the benefits of early childhood education, she committed to leading the project.
There were other community partners that supported the project with expertise, labor, supplies and encouragement. First Things First was a key player who continuously supported Orton and the school’s endeavor from beginning to end.
“Investments in quality early learning environments create the opportunity to see young children flourish,” said First Things First Navajo/Apache Regional Director, Kate Dobler. “When communities partner to support our youngest learners, dynamic and strong programs can be the result.”
“The Vernon Elementary preschool program is an example of what strong partnerships can create … Strong communities grow strong children, and we see that beginning today,” added Dobler.
“This school district really circled the wagons around the family,” adds parent Lynette Carter who also spoke before the crowd in support and congratulation of the preschool. “Early education has academic and social benefits that will be realized beyond K-12 education.”
Creative logistics and good planning
There were a good deal of logistics that had to be worked out to supply proper space for the preschool which included moving the existing kindergarten class into the former special-needs classroom. “The move allowed us to begin construction on the required bathroom,” explains Barajas. “The special-needs office was turned into a restroom for our pre-k and kindergarten students as per the requirement by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Two toilets and two sinks are the requirement for 25 children.”
“Although daily activities will take place inside and outside the classroom, as we use nature as an additional classroom,” explains Barajas in reference to the specially designed playground, compliments of Orton.
“The preschool/kindergarten classroom is fluid,” assures Orton. “I wanted to create a space that can be what the students need. I have an entirely fenced-in outdoor area with a log balancing path, handmade wooden car, small raised garden space, sensory wall, outdoor easels, chalk wall, sand table, and so much more.”
Some of the other unique elements and activities of the current kindergarten class include incubating eggs, hatching butterflies, and maintaining a worm composter, all of which are led by Orton.
Design and budget
The new design, added space and restrooms, the playground and other amenities designed to accommodate and incorporate the preschool class cost approximately $36,313. This includes other modifications to the existing portable building that is now the new classroom.
“The start-up cost included the construction of the restroom, purchase of wood chips for the outdoor learning area, fencing, outdoor/indoor furniture, supplies, materials, curriculum, and licensing,” explains Barajas.
In addition, the annual cost to maintain preschool licensing and supplies for the school is approximately $18,504 annually. “This cost will include the preschool director stipend, combination stipend, part-time paraprofessional, and Teaching Strategies Gold online assessments,” she adds.
As a small school district with a limited budget, Vernon Elementary School District used Forest Fees to help with the start up costs, according to Barajas. “We will be using Title I dollars for the salary of our paraprofessional,” she explains. “We will be using Maintenance and Operation dollars to pay for the curriculum and assessments.”
Hours of operation
The licensed preschool will be half-day and will include a class size of about 25 children when combined with the existing kindergarten class. Since Vernon Elementary School District is a four-day per week school, the preschoolers will be there from 7:30 a.m. — 11:30 a.m. The regular (full) school day is from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., according to Barajas.
For more information about the preschool, call the district office at (928) 537-5463 or visit their website at www.vernon.k12.az.us.