When I first joined the Board of Growing Together Preschool, Inc. in the late 1980s, it was the ONLY preschool program in Central Kentucky integrating the early development and learning of children with and without disabilities. Many of the original founders of the program were also involved with the Bluegrass Association for Mental Retardation. They felt the model of nurturing and instructing these two populations in separate facilities served neither well and that a fully integrated setting would result in better outcomes for the special needs population while allowing the typical children to recognize that all persons had worth and dignity and deserved respect. This was long before “mainstreaming” began in the public school system.
Since that time, other programs have adopted this model and it is incorporated in all Kentucky public school systems. Although we were the pioneer, we are no longer unique in the respect of integrating these early childhood experiences. This has challenged us to redefine our mission in light of the needs of the communities we serve. Increasingly our focus has broadened to include the population considered “at risk” due to low income, single parent or non-typical caregivers. Many of these families were severely impacted by the recession and resultant downsizing/ work hour reductions. Others lacked the education and job skills to be competitive in a shrinking job market. One of their biggest concerns was balancing the demands of time at work or at school with the cost of early childcare.
Our challenge as an organization is to meet our operating expenses while having sufficient funding to subsidize childcare costs to allow working low income families or those continuing education to improve earnings to benefit from quality early childhood education. Since we are a preschool and not only accept but welcome those with physical or developmental challenges, our staff to child ratios are very low. The costs for each child with special needs are often 3 to 4 times that for a typical child. Little of that cost is covered by insurance or third-party resources.
People often ask me about my long involvement with Growing Together Preschool. I do not have a child with special needs. In fact, I don’t have children at all. By profession, I am an insurance and investment advisor. As such, I know this to be true: the earlier an investment is made, the greater the eventual result. Investment in quality preschool is an investment whose returns have been well and often documented. Not only does it give the child a sense of worth and dignity and a head start for all future schooling, it gives the community the benefits of a contributing citizen. Compare the cost of this early education to the community’s cost for public assistance, high school drop-out rates, drug or alcohol treatment, and incarceration. This is why I am passionate about Growing Together Preschool. It’s a foolish farmer who plows, fertilizes and irrigates and then buys low quality seed. These children are the seed corn of our community and our future. All the applications of later “fertilizer” will never have the impact of a quality preschool experience.
Patricia K. Vanaman