Early Childhood Expansion

Early Childhood Expansion
Posted on 04/01/2021
Early Childhood Expansion  Graphic

The St. Joseph Board of Education has continued to make a commitment to expand preschool in the district beginning the fall of 2021 with a unanimous vote on March 29.

Since 2019, the Academic Services department has been working to identify ways to expand opportunities for three- and four-year olds who live in the St. Joseph School District. Extensive work went into a partnership with Missouri Western State University to expand SJSD preschool on the university campus. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and a decrease in funding for public and higher education halted the project. 

Lake Contrary Elementary, located at 1800 Alabama Street, will become the new home of early learning in the district. The cost to open the program is $312,000 with 20 percent of that amount coming from the CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. 

“Early childhood is a priority in the St. Joseph School District,” said Dr. Doug Van Zyl, Superintendent. “This is something we need to do to help our students and families and give our youngest students the tools they will need to be successful as they move forward.”

Nineteen classrooms will provide learning opportunities to as many as 556 students who will attend half day programs, four days a week. That is an increase of 140 seats. “The dollars you invest in early learning pay dividends,” said Dr. Marlie Williams, Assistant Superintendent of Academic and Education Services. “Research shows there are academic benefits, but the social benefits are significant over time.” 

Currently, preschool students attend Oak Grove Elementary and the Keatley Center. Beginning in August, those students will travel to the Lake Contrary site for classes. Most preschool aged students currently reside in the South End to Midtown areas of the city.  

The one-level building is ADA accessible with an ADA compliant playground and has an operational kitchen that will allow for the preparation of hot meals and less purchasing of pre-packaged food. The single site will also increase staff collaboration and a concentration of resources in one location such as Parents as Teachers.

Toni Lynn Gardner, a St. Joseph native, has been named the district’s Coordinator of Early Childhood programs. With preschool and primary grade instructional experience in both the public and parochial schools in St. Joseph, Gardner has extensive experience in implementing project-based learning in the early learning setting, including being trained in Project Construct.

Gardner holds a Master’s in Educational Leadership from Northwest Missouri State University and a Bachelor’s in elementary education with early childhood and early childhood special education certifications from Missouri Western State University. She is currently pursuing her Educational Specialist degree from Northwest.

“I am thrilled at the idea of having all of our Early Childhood Programs located under one roof and creating a sense of community. I look forward to the opportunity to collaborate with our Early Childhood educators and serve the youngest students of our community from the moment they enter school.”

Research shows that much of the most critical brain development in children takes place before they reach Kindergarten. Early childhood education is the foundation that prepares students to be successful and competitive among their peers.

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