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April 18th, 2021

cozaad kcslGail Cozaad with the Kansas Children’s Service League talks to the USD 480 school board Monday evening during the board’s discussion about possibly relocating the district’s Pre-K program to an elementary school. L&T photo/Elly GrimmELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times


Liberal’s Pre-K programs might soon be undergoing some changes. 

During the most recent meeting of the USD 480 school board Monday evening, the board and other district administrators discussed potentially moving the Pre-K programs to Sunflower Elementary School. 

“We are understanding as a staff of why it’s being proposed the Pre-K programs be relocated, but I will say many people I work with are against relocating,” USD 480 Speech Language Pathologist Holly McCarter said. “We have really enjoyed being in our own facility and we feel like an emphasis really needs to be put on early childhood – relocating will take some of that emphasis off of that. If we HAVE to move to Sunflower Elementary School, we’ll be fine and we’ll make it work because that’s what we do, and we’ll still absolutely work to help all the students who come through, but our preference as a staff is to stay where we are and work to grow what we do, because this is such a needed service for our community’s younger children.”

Gail Cozaad with the Kansas Children’s Service League, which is a community partner with Bright Start Early Learning Center, also spoke to the board. 

“I met with Ms. Hickert last week to discuss where we were as an organization and share our thoughts about what to do with the rest of that building if the decision is ultimately made to move and a few other things,” Cozaad said. “From a HeadStart perspective, having a Pre-K center like the one you have is kind of a dream. There have been some challenges from a collaborative standpoint, but we’ve enjoyed the collaboration we have seen with you all, and that takes work and time, and I foresee that continuing to grow as time goes on. We also know there are difficult times from a financial standpoint, and I know this is not an easy decision for the board or school district to make.”

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Superintendent Renae Hickert then spoke about some of the discussions that had taken place regarding the matter. 

“Right up front, COVID-19 did not cause the enrollment to decline – enrollment decline started about four years ago and the numbers have been trickling down since that time,” Hickert said. “During the past two years especially, the elementary schools have had to make changes to make up for fewer staff members. And again, I want to emphasize, none of this was caused by COVID-19, it’s something that’s been happening for a few years, and the middle schools and high school have also had to make adjustments. The option of moving Bright Start Early Learning Center to Sunflower Elementary School – which I will tell you, as a team, is something we WANT to do – but as a district, we have to think of what can we do that won’t directly impact student services and programs or staff?”

Director of Elementary Education Lana Evans then recapped a tour of Sunflower Elementary School that was given to certified and classified staff. 

“We looked at rooms, storage areas, the courtyard and restrooms, we looked all throughout the building and talked about what things could look like should the decision ultimately be to move,” Evans said. “Then after the tour I sent out a survey to those who participated and there was a lot of great feedback from that. There were a lot of positive aspects mentioned, such as being part of the K-5 team, which could be a great help, and the classrooms themselves were mentioned, including the rooms’ size, whether or not there were windows and the amount of storage available. Several teachers also pointed out there would be chances for the older students in the building to be role models to show proper behavior and maybe do some activities with them like reading. It was also pointed out there could be some combined efforts like with accreditation and there was a chance to join Pre-K students with K-5 families along with exposure to PE and music classes in that building, that’s something that could be talked about. The outdoor courtyard was also talked about as a major benefit, along with the fact that Pre-K will be together in one hallway. Some teachers also mentioned the Pre-K parents will get a better idea of the K-5 education process, which will be a great asset when the students transition from Pre-K to K-5.”

Evans said there were some other concerns expressed by staff members during the tour. 

“There were some concerns about being in a space where maintenance staff wouldn’t have to walk through on a regular basis, and there was also some concern expressed about autonomy,” Evans said. “There was one staff member who felt the preschool needs to be its own entity and seen in the community rather than be hidden away in one of the elementary schools, and they added the counselor and social worker access is only beneficial if that access is actually allowed. There were also come concerns raised about parking for staff and parents, and concerns about the bathrooms and their use and the need for privacy, especially since the younger children still need some help with potty training. There was also a need expressed for designated spaces for screenings and assessments, and there were also concerns raised about whether the Pre-K and K-5 staffs would actually click.”

“To give some numbers, Sunflower Elementary School currently has 333 students, and Bright Start Early Learning Center will add approximately 219 students – but keep in mind, only half of those students are present at one time. Those numbers are comparable with what we’re seeing at Cottonwood Elementary School and Prairie View Elementary School.”

Director of Operations Chad Mease then talked about adjustments that could be made as far as transportation, food service, and the playground area. 

“Currently at Bright Start Early Learning Center, there are some issues with the existing playground – mulch is an ADA-approved surface, but it’s really difficult to navigate for wheelchairs, device-assisted walkers and unstable walkers, so we’re researching some possible renovations with that,” Mease said. “Some options would be to relocate the new accessible play structure from Bright Start Early Learning Center that was put in back in 2018, and that was a $77,073 structure, and the estimated cost to move it would be about $30,000. To install a new swing structure would be about $30,000, and we also have the potion to install new playground surfacing.”

Special Education was also talked about. 

“Of the 219 Bright Start Early Learning Center students, 71 of those students have an individual education plan,” Special Education Director Vicki Adams said. “One of the things that comes up is who will attend the IEP meetings with the LEA, and that’s usually the building principal. But the school representative must have the authority to commit school resources and be able to ensure that whatever services are described in an IEP will actually be provided because the school will be bound by the IEP that is developed at an IEP meeting. And in case the principal can’t attend, they have the authority to appoint an administrative designee who has the authority to commit the resources of the district and building, and that can be an assistant principal, counselor, instructional coach, someone like that.”

The conversation then turned to the financial side of everything before concluding. 

“I really think we need to make this public and accessible so the community can take a look at it, I think that will help a lot,” board member Nick Hatcher said. 

“I want to thank the staff for putting all of this together, this is all very good information, and I’m very glad both the pros and cons of this were shown, that makes a big difference in decisions,” board member Naomi Vargas added.

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