Grace Kendrick has helped hundreds of children grow over her three decades as an educator, so it should not be surprising that she uses a farming analogy to stress the importance of early childhood education programs.

Kendrick, principal of the Pettis County Early Childhood Cooperative, said if you were to plant corn and leave it alone until the end of the growing season, then dump gallons of water on it, you would not get as good a crop as if you had been tending to its needs all the way along. The same is true for students: Waiting until they are in junior high or high school to address their needs limits their opportunities for success.

Sedalia School District 200 is in the design phase of a 40,000-square-foot, $10.5 million early childhood education facility that will provide the space and resources necessary to address the needs of Pettis County’s youngest learners. The co-op currently is housed in a wing at Sedalia Middle School, however, the program’s needs have now outgrown that space.

“With a new early childhood center, we will be meeting the basic needs of those students, which we haven’t been able to do in the current facility,” said Sedalia 200 Superintendent Steve Triplett. “Now, we are giving our students what they deserve and what they need.”

Needs are growing

Sedalia 200 Assistant Superintendent Chris Pyle, who also is the district’s special services director, said that in each of the past five years, the early childhood special education program has seen an average of 30 more students with intense special needs coming in than are successfully leaving the program. Kendrick said many children are coming in with “intense, significant needs,” ranging from emotional to behavioral to medical.

“It is not just students who meet the criteria for early childhood special education. We have to make sure we have all of our services and that our staff is trained for behavior management and for trauma, to work with children with emotional needs. This goes for our Title students, as well,” she said.

Triplett has been struck by changes in the family dynamic.

“I don’t know that I am a huge fan of 3-year-olds being in school, but that is where we are now,” he said. “We have working parents, single parents, and the needs of our students have changed. We have been able to identify things that five or 10 years ago we could not. It is important that we bring in those 3- and 4-year-olds as soon as we can to help them and give them an opportunity for a successful life.”

The co-op is not a standard preschool, and it doesn’t charge tuition; it provides an array of services but is centered on two key programs: Early Childhood Special Education and Title 1 preschool. To check for eligibility for special services, students undergo a developmental screening.

“We have to evaluate the areas where the children have concerns and then see if they meet the criteria as outlined by state and federal guidelines,” Kendrick said. “If they do, then we meet with the families to talk about the plan for the child, which determines what services the child receives.”

Co-op staff members screen children from 3 months to age 5. The screenings are performed primarily in Sedalia and in the other districts that are part of the cooperative.

The Title 1 program is for children who are considered at risk; there is a concern in their development, but it is not considered significant enough for special education services. Priority goes to the oldest children and those with the greatest risk factors. There are only 80 slots available, and Kendrick keeps a waiting list in case there are openings. Children must be age 3 by Aug. 1 to be eligible for the Title program; for ECSE, they can start on their third birthday so long as all of their testing is complete.

When Jenni Schook’s daughter Trinity started at the co-op more than two years ago, she had difficulty with her speech, including just saying her name. At her graduation ceremony in May, Trinity led her classmates in the “We are the co-op” chant. When Schook told friends that Trinity was enrolled at the co-op, they said it was the perfect place for her, “and they were right,” Schook said.

Building student success

The current Pettis County Early Childhood Cooperative space at Sedalia Middle School is the latest stop for its programs, which have made several stops over the years.

“The district has been cautious with the growth of the co-op,” Kendrick said, explaining that it started more than 25 years ago in leased space, then moved to a larger leased option along with some space at Heber Hunt Elementary. It then moved into a few rooms at the middle school before expanding to take over the south wing. The space was never ideal, but now is inadequate.

Each classroom is shared by two teaching teams, and there are only two restrooms – one for females, one for males – in the wing. It also is split into two levels, which is a drawback for students with mobility issues; that separation also can be a challenge for students with behavior issues or who have difficulty transitioning between activities.

“It is a long process to transition from the classroom to the gym or to the bathroom. The teachers really have to be on their toes to make sure each child can get from Point A to Point B quickly and safely,” Kendrick said.

The new facility, to be located off Tiger Pride Boulevard on the campus of Smith-Cotton High School, is planned for a single level, and each classroom will have a bathroom. The nurse’s station will be more user-friendly, the gymnasium and library both will be expanded and there will be multiple sensory rooms. Expanded office space and a conference room will alleviate the current challenge that finds five staff members sharing an office that also is used for consultations with parents.

“There are no bells and whistles to it, to be honest. There is not a lot of fluff,” Triplett said. “We feel it will meet our basic needs. If you look at our facilities, we have added onto the high school since it was built, we have done some remodeling at the junior high, so we are mindful about our space. We’re making sure it has enough (space) to last us into the future.”

Pyle is grateful for the community’s commitment to children.

“The new co-op will allow us to serve more students who display the need for early intervention. Working together with our families will help these children close the learning gap at an earlier rate, allowing students to experience success,” he said.

Schook is glad that the co-op staff will be getting the space and resources they need to do their jobs as well as possible.

“The teachers are what make (the co-op) so special,” Schook said. “You are handing your child over to them four days a week, usually for things that as a parent you don’t have the education or knowledge to (address).”

Amid the changes, one constant for Kendrick and the co-op staff has been providing support for Pettis County families.

“The philosophy of the co-op is, ‘Let kids be kids.’ We sneak in the academics through play. Kids need to be able to be little, to be able to get dirty and to enjoy and explore and have fun,” she said. “We want these kids to feel at home and happy. … We need to ensure they are able to create who they are going to become.”

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